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The 2,000-year-old computer that shouldn’t exist

The Antikythera mechanism is a 2000-year-old astronomical guidance system, primarily used to predict astronomical phenomena and possibly the future. Its very existence is shrouded in mystery.

Modern society had no record of such a device until it was found in a Roman shipwreck in 1900 by Greek sponge divers. When one diver surfaced talking of a wreckage containing “artifacts, horses, and corpses” it was at first dismissed as ‘raptures of the deep’ a type of ‘drunkenness’ brought on by the nitrogen mix in the breathing pipes. However, it was confirmed that the wreckage of a Roman ship containing artifacts dating as far back as the 4th century BCE lay beneath the waves opposite the island of Kythera or ‘Antikythera’ in Greek.

The device, dated at around 87BCE is presented in the National Museum of Athens, confounding the public, historians and astronomers alike, since there are no examples of similar technology of the era. When the physicist Richard Feynman visited the museum he said of the mechanism:

“it is so entirely different and strange that it is nearly is some kind of machine with gear trains, very much like the inside of a modern wind-up alarm clock.”

The mechanism consists of 30 bronze gears sat in a wooden container, the size of a shoebox, the clockwork mechanism was highly advanced for its time.

By turning a crank, you are able to move forward or backward chronologically. The crank made the gears move and rotate a series of dials and rings on which are inscribed Greek zodiac signs and Egyptian calendar days. It seems that with the loss of the device under the Aegean sea, the knowledge of how to construct such a device was also lost for over 1,000 years. Similar astronomical clocks didn’t reappear in Europe until the 14th century.

The mechanism tracked the lunar calendar, could predict eclipses and charted the position and phases of the Moon. It also tracked the seasons and ancient festivals like the Olympics. While many of its functions have been figured out, how, where, and by whom it was used are as of yet unknown.

It may have been used to predict the future

Research by classicist Alexander Jones and colleagues shows an interpretation of the mechanism based on the extant 3,400 Greek characters of the device, although thousands of more characters are likely missing due to its incomplete nature. The scholars discovered that the mechanism refers to an eclipses’ colour, size, and associated winds. The Greeks believed that the characteristics of an eclipse were related to good and bad omens. Because of this belief, by building in predictive eclipse technology, the creator of the mechanism was letting the user divine the future.

Here you can see a virtual run-through of the mechanism:

And of course, the folk at LEGO decided to show just what you can do with those little plastic blocks, by building a functioning LEGO Antikythera device.

Find out more by following the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project page


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