Discovered in an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901, the freakishly advanced Antikythera Mechanism has been called the world’s first computer. A decades-long investigation into the 2,000 year-old-device is shedding new light onto this mysterious device, including the revelation that it may have been used for more than just astronomy.
The Antikythera Mechanism is one of the most fascinating and important archaeological discoveries ever made, one that reveals the remarkable technological and engineering capacities of the ancient Greeks as well as their excellent grasp of astronomy. This clock-like assembly of bronze gears and displays was used to predict lunar and solar eclipses, along with the positions of the sun, moon, and planets. It wasn’t programmable in the modern sense, but it’s considered the world’s first analog computer. Dating to around 60 BC, nothing quite like it would appear for another millennium.
Since its discovery at the bottom of the Mediterranean, scientists have sought to understand its purpose. No user manual exists, but more than a dozen pieces of classical literature make mention of similar devices. Scientists are having to figure it out by looking at it, both inside and out.
Yesterday, in an event held at the Katerina Laskaridis Historical Foundation Library in Greece, an international team of researchers announced the results of a decades-long investigation into the technological relic. Their analysis reaffirms much of what we already knew about the Antikythera Mechanism, while also providing some tantalizing new details.
The machine’s physical parts are reasonably well understood, so in an effort to learn more about its intended function, the researchers took a deeper look into the tiny inscriptions meticulously etched onto the outer surfaces of its 82 surviving fragments. Some of these letters measure just 1.2 millimeters (1/20th of an inch) across, and are engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the device. To do it, the researchers used cutting-edge imaging techniques, including x-ray scanning.
“The original investigation was intended to see how the mechanism works, and that was very successful,” noted team member Mike Edmunds, a professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University. “What we hadn’t realized was that the modern techniques that were being used would allow us to read the texts much better both on the outside of the mechanism and on the inside than was done before.”
In total, researchers have now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text within the device.