Is the Antikythera Mechanism an Ancient Computer?

Fagjun | Published 2017-05-31 10:07

One of the gears of the mechanism
[Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images]

The Antikythera mechanism has been the stuff of a lot of theories—some logical, and some not so logical. It turns out that the truth about this ancient artifact is just as amazing as some of the more outlandish theories.

Archaeologist Valerios Stais found the artifact in a piece of rock from the Antikythera shipwreck. The wreck was named after the Antikythera island in Greece, where the wreck was found. The ship dated back to around the first century BC, and it had artifacts that dated back to the fourth century BC.

One of the artifacts in the ship was the famous Antikythera mechanism, which has baffled people since its discovery. Its design seemed to be too sophisticated for the era it was from. The mechanism was a stack of gears that had a surprisingly precise calibration. Thus, a lot of theories on what the mechanism was and what it did sprouted.

What Did the Antikythera Mechanism Do?

A fragment of the mechanism has a scale that deals with the 12 zodiac signs.
[Photo by Brett Seymour/WHOI]

Scientists are still trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of the highly advanced ancient artifact. At first glance, scientists were able to surmise that the mechanism must have served as some kind of calculator, clock, or calendar. Derek J. de Solla Price, a science historian at Princeton University, analyzed the mechanism in 1959. Price concluded that the mechanism enabled users to predict the positioning of stars and planets in accordance with the month.

One main gear in the mechanism represents the calendar year. Other smaller gears indicate the movements of the planets, the sun, and the moon. Moving the main calendar gear will allow the user to approximate the positions of celestial bodies. Basically, the mechanism was able to perform a number of mathematical calculations with just a little input from the user. The “programming” of the mechanism lies in the mathematical ratios of the gears themselves.

About a century after Valerios Stais discovered the Antikythera mechanism, scientists found something groundbreaking. X-rays revealed that there were actually inscriptions on some parts of the mechanism. These inscriptions formed a kind of instruction manual that explained how the mechanism worked and what it did.

Scientists discovered that the mechanism once had small orbs that moved across the face of the mechanism. The orbs represented the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. It turns out that the mechanism can also function as a solar calendar as well as a lunar calendar. The mechanism as also able to count the days down to the next big Greek sporting event, like the Olympics.

Human Genius

A 2007 reconstruction of the mechanism
[Photo by Mogi Vicentini]

Thus, we now know how people used the Antikythera mechanism, and what it information it yielded. What we still don't know is who used the device. The other aspects of its purpose are also still unknown. We don't know yet if the mechanism had been a teaching tool, or if it was a tool in a scientific lab.

However, what we can be quite sure of is the extent of human genius. The Antikythera mechanism is an example of how human ingenuity can produce something amazing and ahead of its time. Ancient humans may have known less than we do at present, but it's amazing how much they were able to do with what they knew.

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