2,000 years ago, an astonishing piece of technology existed – the Antikythera Mechanism. Its origins were shrouded in mystery, and nobody could have guessed its true capabilities when it was found inside a sunken ship near the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Today, it is widely acknowledged as the first computer. The complexity of this enigmatic device intrigued scholars for decades, and even now, some of its functions remain veiled in uncertainty.
Through X-ray imaging, researchers have revealed one of its main purposes – a system of clock-like wheels and gears that work harmoniously to create a portable, hand-cranked, Earth-centered orrery. This orrery could predict the positions of stars and planets, as well as lunar and solar eclipses. It seems that it could also track the four-year cycle of athletic games similar to an Olympiad (cycle of the ancient Olympic Games). At the heart of the Antikythera Mechanism lies the corroded core of its largest gear, measuring approximately 13 centimeters in span. The entire device stood at 33 centimeters in height, approximately the size of a large book.
The exact date of its construction is not clear but it is believed that Greek scientists designed and constructed this amazing device around 87 BC, between 150 and 100 BC, or 205 BC.
Recent advancements in modern computer modeling have enabled experts to recreate missing components, leading to the development of a more comprehensive replica of this astounding ancient machine.
Researchers from Cardiff University used computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning in 2008 to image the fragments of the mechanism inside and read the faint crust-encased inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of this machine. These indicated that the Antikythera had 37 meshing bronze gears that allowed it to follow the movements of the Sun and the Moon through the zodiac. The mechanism was also able to predict eclipses and model the orbit of our Moon (including irregularities in the lunar orbit where the Moon’s velocity is higher in its perigee than in its apogee). It is speculated that 2nd century astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes may have been consulted in the construction of the machine because he had studied the Moon’s irregular motion in the 2nd century.
Furthermore, a part of the mechanism seems to be missing that may have calculated the position of the five classical planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Additional analysis of the inscriptions in 2016 revealed numbers that may have calculated the orbital periods of Venus and Saturn.
With each step forward, we uncover more of the marvels concealed within the Antikythera mechanism, a testament to the ingenuity of our ancestors and a source of inspiration for the quest of uncovering our technological past.