The Amazing Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera Mechanism

The role that Ancient Greece has played in the shaping of current day society is a feat that many do not comprehend let alone appreciate. Just think of the contribution they have made to art and culture, research and the pursuit of knowledge, political science and philosophy. But are you aware that in some ways Greece may also lay claim to the discovery of information technology? You may not believe it but it is true. Go ahead … why don’t you Google “world’s oldest computer”. We’re talking about a ‘technological contribution’ that found place millennia before the ‘Bill Gates’, ‘Mark Zuchenbergs’ and ‘Steve Jobs’ of this world. Of course the evidence of this contribution was found nowhere else than on the bottom of the Greek sea. We’re talking about the Antikythera Mechanism.

Antikythera Mechanism Schematic

The large block of corroded bronze was uncovered by divers from a sunken wreck of the coast of the Greek island Antikythera in 1901. The wreck itself had been discovered by a crew of sponge divers from Symi Island in the Spring of 1900. A closer look at the bronze block revealed a technological ingenuity of incredible magnitude consisting of engraved plates and 29 gears. A skilled ‘programmer’ of the mechanism was able to retrieve information from it about the position of the sun, the moon and four of the planets that were known at the time. The Antikythera mechanism is now generally referred to as the first known analogue computer. This computer was so advanced that dates could be entered using a number of discs with the outcome of the computation being presented on the mechanism’s faces. Vice versa, setting the dials of the mechanism on a significant astronomical event, for example a lunar eclipse, would provide the date of the next occurrence. The front face of the mechanism presented dates based on the Egyptian 365-day calender. At the rear of the mechanism there are five dials. The main rear dial tracked the Metonic calender (a period of very close to 19 years). Years after the discovery of the mechanism and the initial investigations that followed scientists uncovered that one of the rear dials calculated the timing of several panhellenic athletic games, including the Ancient Olympic Games, the Naian Games in Dodona, the Pythian Games of Delphi and the Isthmian Games of Corinth. This so-called Olympiad Dial has recently been renamed the Games Dial.

Scientists have determined that the mechanism dates back to either the first or second century BC. Continued research suggests that the concept for the mechanism may have originated in the colonies of Corinth, since researchers identified the calendar on the Metonic Spiral as coming from Corinth or one of its colonies in Northwest Greece or Sicily. It has also been suggested that the design may have come from the philosopher Posidonius or astronomer Hipparchus. “The mechanism uses Hipparchus's theory for the motion of the Moon, which suggests the possibility that he may have designed it or at least worked on it” (Wikipedia). The engineering ingenuity of the mechanism is underlined by the observation that the underlying knowledge of this technology was lost again at some point in antiquity. The next occurrence of technological works approaching the mechanism’s complexity and workmanship did not appear again until the development of mechanical astronomical clocks in Europe in the fourteenth century … over 1500 years later!

Antikythera Mechanism Exosuit

The fragments of the Antikythera mechanism can be admired at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, along with a number of artistic reconstructions of how the mechanism may have looked and worked.

Scientists and researchers continue to look for more pieces and information through annually reoccurring expeditions to the original site of the wreck. In 2014 the wreck formed the stage for the introduction of a more recent feat of engineering, an Exosuit developed and manufactured in Canada. Imagine a submersible Ironman suit. This special ‘astronaut’ suit is intended to enable divers to descend to 150 meters deep and perform delicate works underwater. The suit has hands enabling the diver within it to grab objects and to dig. Technically it is not a suit at all; it is in fact certified as a submarine that merely happens to take the shape of a person. Although a work in progress the suit did contribute to the discovery of various statues and a spear that year.