The oldest Computer of the World

Twenty-one centuries ago, a mechanism of incredible ingenuity was created in Greece. The story of its rediscovery begins, when a mysterious relic was found on the seabed on a shipwreck, broken into pieces and covered with rust.

The story of this discovery dates back to the year 1900, when a Greek sponge-diver spoted “naked men and horses” on the seabed off the Greek island of Antikythera. What he had discovered was an ancient wreck that had been lying on the seabed for two thousand years. The ship, it seemed, came probably from Rhodes, which was an important intellectual center of astronomy and mechanical engineering at the time, and was hiding numerous statues in bronze and marble, coins, everyday objects such as oil lamps, finely crafted vases, and precious art objects.

This however, is the story of one of its pieces only – but which one. It is what is today considered to be the first ‘computer’ of the world. Among the objects from the wreck, there was a strange piece of bronze about twenty centimetres high, which quickly began to disintegrate once it was removed from the salt water. Its pieces were however brought to the Greek National Museum in Athens for conservation and research. Nevertheless, it was not until the 21st century that powerful machines, equipped with a radiography system were able to solve the mystery of the unique relic.

With its exceptional and extreme complexity, this precious artefact attracted the interest of Derek J. de Solla Price, an English physicist and science historian at Yale University. In 1951, he plunged into action and for the time first made a detailed study of this mechanism. Using x-ray radiographs, he was able to reconstruct the machine called now the Antikythera Mechanism. The careful study of this instrument showed, that it consisted of thirty gears, shafts, drums, moving hands and three dials inlaid with an instruction manual and astronomical signs. It was a non-programmable computer to calculate the different cycles of the moon, the sun and the planets. Extremely complex, the device contains elements that link it to a clock or even the modern computer. The English physicist called this mechanism the “computerized calendar.”

Intrigued, Australian historian and specialist in the development of computers, Allan Geirge Bromley, got on the trail of this mysterious object. By performing x-rays with more accurate machines, Bromley reproduced the device, correcting certain errors in the reconstruction of the device by Derek J. de Solla Price.

Michael Wright, a British engineer, began to work on restoring the artefact. This new study showed that Price was mistaken about the details but his theory was correct. The Antikythera is a well automated calculation instrument that deserves to be called an “antique computer.”

Carefully conserved in the Archaeological Museum of Athens with other pieces of the wreckage, the mechanism continues to attract many researchers. Even today, this mysterious object has not revealed all its secrets and research is ongoing. Even better, new dives are undertaken to the mysterious Antikythera wreck and new pieces of the history come to light.

It is unfortunate that museum development lacks behind the development of research. If you go today to the Athens National Museum, you will see a nicely dried piece of bronze, but learn little of its importance and set up. There is also nothing said about the archaeological context of the find. The fascinating story how this ship was lost, where it came from and even more, how its cargo was recovered, is not mentioned.

It is time museums change from object collections to story tellers…

Image: The Antikythera mechanism (c) Marsyas

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