The World’s First Computer

In 1901, some sponge divers came across the wreckage of an ancient Greek vessel. From that vessel they pulled a very unusual looking lump of metal dating back from the 1st Century BC. This lump of metal has been fascinating scientists ever since, to the point that there’s even a research team at University College London that is dedicated strictly to determining its inner workings. (Incidentally, you can see the actual metal remains at the National Archeological Museum in Athens.)

It turned out to be a complex device that included numerous gears, pins, dials and metal plates. Since it was found off the coast of a Greek island named Antikythera, it’s been called the Antikythera mechanism ever since. It was so rusted it took a long time to determine the purpose of this thing, but now, according to this article, scientists have come up with a working model of how this device would have functioned.

It seems that this complex mechanism was able to track the paths of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which were the only planets they were aware of at the time. It also tracked the path of the sun, the phases of the moon, predicted eclipses, retrograde motions, and the position of the zodiac constellations. It even, oddly enough, described the timing of various athletic events such as the Olympics.

This device required experts in Math, Astronomy, and Geometry to be invented, and it’s entirely too complex for me to describe here, but if you enjoy bathing in the Land of Nerd as much as I do, you’ll really want to watch this half hour video. It made me understand for about 15 seconds, and now it’s gone again. Something to do with prime numbers. It is very legitimately called the world’s first computer.

What fascinates me the most is that scientists were able to figure it out based on a rusted lump that was only 30 percent intact. The inscriptions on the front and back helped, but basically they had to reverse engineer the whole thing  based on what the Greeks knew about the cosmos at the time, so they also had to employ historians.

The ancient Greeks believed that all the planets, and the sun, revolved around the earth. So they had to really put serious thought into how the planets seemed to be going in retrograde motion at various times. The device actually accounts for that quite accurately.

This mechanism alone demonstrates that some people were a lot more sophisticated 3000 years ago than we used to think. But that makes me wonder why they didn’t take things even further. The Antikythera mechanism was the key to the universe. They could have gone beyond that.

As is often the case, the mysteries of the past will most likely remain just that. But kudos to the scientists for learning so much from so very little. That’s impressive.

When I said that there’s now a working model, I didn’t mention that scientists made it using modern tools. The next challenge will be to try to create it using ancient Greek methods. How did they produce something so solid and accurate back then? Time will tell.

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