The ancient Greeks created the world’s first computer, the Antikythera Mechanism, a mechanical device that they used to predict astronomical events and mark the passage of time. The device was pulled from the Antikythera shipwreck in 1901. While scientists have been studying the mechanism for over 100 years, modern technology has finally allowed them to learn much more about this incredible artifact. The Antikythera Mechanism shows how technologically and scientifically advanced the ancient Greeks were and reflects what was important to them.
The Antikythera Mechanism, used 2,100 years ago by the ancient Greeks, has been called a “philosopher’s guide to the galaxy.” Powered by a hand crank, the device consists of some 30 gears with interlocking teeth. There are multiple dials that marked time by at least three calendars, including one dial that calculated the timing of the Olympics. The mechanism also showed the position of stars and planets relative to Earth and the waxing and waning of the moon.
Though the Antikythera Mechanism’s significance was recognized almost immediately, the degree of damage it had suffered made studying it difficult. Now, x-ray scanning and imaging technology has improved enough to allow scientists to see beyond the damage. The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, which includes a group of archaeologists, astronomers, and historians, used these new technologies to discover more about the mechanism’s functions than ever before. Alexander Jones, historian of ancient science at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, translated many new characters that were revealed. One of the most important discoveries was a 3,500 word explanatory label on the main plate.
The ancient Greeks placed a huge emphasis on the stars, planets, and eclipses, believing they could use them to predict the weather, famines, or war. Jones says that they associated astronomical movements with important cultural events, and that the mechanism shows that the ancient Greeks “were trying to gather a whole range of things that were part of the Greek experience of the cosmos.”