The Antikythera Mechanism — A 2,000-Year-Old Computer — May Be Older Than We Thought

by Owen James Burke


The “Antikythera Mechanism” (Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press)

In 1901, sponge divers off the Greek island of Crete discovered Antikythera, a two-thousand-year-old shipwreck (named not for the ship but the harbor off which it was discovered). Among its debris was a piece vaguely labeled the Antikythera mechanism, a sort of analog computer which functioned as a celestial calculator, and predated all similar technology known to historians by over 1,000 years. Originally, it had been dated to 87 B.C., but more recent examination of the lettering on the back of the device, in coordination with a conclusion that the calendar of the device began in 205 B.C., suggest it may be a century older than previously thought.

Caked in corrosion, the exact purpose of the device was not understood until a 2006 high-resolution x-ray tomography was produced, depicting what is now considered to be one of the oldest and most invaluable insights into ancient Greek technology. But who built it?

Some researchers are pinning the job on Archimedes, Posidonius, or Hipparchus, attempting to attach some further fame to already legendary scientists. Dr. James Evans, a physicist at the University of Puget Sound in Washington State, who conducted the most recent analysis of the mechanism, says “It’s probably safer not to try to hang it on any one particular famous person.”


Inscriptions on the back of the mechanism, referring to Olympic Games held in Rhodes may be of an older vintage text than last concluded. The clock-like device also kept track of Olympic Games for good measure. (Digital image: NYT)

The bottom line for scientists and historians alike is that this is a remarkable recovery from the ocean which deserves full and methodological attention. So in 2010, Apple engineer Andrew Carol spent a month designing and building a fully operational replica of the device to better understand its unprecedented precision, using 1,500 Lego parts:

Although the whereabouts of the wreck have been documented for over a century, an expedition last fall led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and Greek government scientists began the first systematic scientific exploration of the wreck site, though it was cut short to just 5 days due to inclement weather. Hopeful for more favorable weather conditions, the expedition is expected to resume this spring.

Read more on The New York Times, and about Andrew Carol’s replica here — OB

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