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2,100-year-old Computer

Imagine tossing a top-notch laptop into the sea, leaving scientists from a foreign culture to scratch their heads over its corroded remains centuries later. A Roman shipmaster inadvertently did something just like it 2,000 years ago off southern Greece.

They claim to have identified a handful of puzzling metal scraps found in the wreck as the earliest known mechanical computing device that pinpointed astronomical events.

Known as the Antikythera Mechanism — from the island off which the Roman ship sank — the assemblage of cogs and wheels looks like the innards of a very badly maintained grandfather clock.

Only the first clockwork devices appeared more than a thousand years later in western Europe.

Fragments of the 2,100-year-old Antikythera Mechanism, believed to be the earliest surviving mechanical computing device, are seen at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The bronze system of cogs and wheels was found in a Roman wreck off southern Greece in 1900. It is the focus of a two-day conference starting in Athens Thursday, with the participation of scientists from Greece, Britain, the U.S. and other countries.
A handout photo shows the Antikythera Mechanism at the Athens National Archaeological Museum. The 2,100-year-old clockwork machine whose remains were retrieved from a shipwreck more than a century ago has turned out to be the celestial super-computer of the ancient world.

A reconstruction of Antikythera Mechanism on display at an exhibition of Ancient Greek Technology in Athens in 2005. The 2,100-year-old clockwork machine whose remains were retrieved from a shipwreck more than a century ago has turned out to be the celestial super-computer of the ancient world.

Reconstructed Antikythera
Bozeman Replica
An undated handout photo shows a reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism, displayed at the American Computer Museum in Bozeman. The Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient astronomical calculator made at the end of the 2nd century BC was amazingly accurate and more complex than any instrument for the next 1,000 years, scientists said on Wednesday. The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest known device to contain an intricate set of gear wheels. It was retrieved from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901 but until now what it was used for has been a mystery.

Experts from Britain, Greece and the United States said they have detected the word "Olympia" on a bronze dial, as well as the names of other games in ancient Greece on the device known as the Antikythera Mechanism.

Reconstructed Antikythera

"We have used the latest technology available to understand this mechanism, yet the technological quality in this mechanism puts us to shame," said project leader Mike Edmunds, professor of astronomy at Cardiff University. "If the ancient Greeks made this, what else could they do?"

Ever since its discovery a century ago, the complex mechanism has baffled scientists.

Edmunds said the 82 surviving fragments, dated to between 140-100 B.C, contain over 30 gear wheels, and "are covered with astronomical, mathematical and mechanical inscriptions."

"It was a calendar of the moon and sun, it predicted the possibility of eclipses, it showed the position of the sun and moon in the zodiac, the phase of the moon, and we believe also it may have shown the position of some of the planets, possibly just Venus and Mercury," he said.

The box-shaped mechanism — the size of office paper and operated with a hand-crank — could predict an eclipse to a precise hour on a specific day.

The Antikythera device was probably made on the island of Rhodes, which had a long tradition in astronomy and applied mechanics.

The sunken ship, thought to have been carrying plunder from Roman-conquered Greece to Rome, is believed to have sailed from Rhodes.

It sank in the first century B.C.

The wreck was found in 1900 by Greek sponge-divers 50 meters (164 feet) deep and just off the small island of Antikythera, on what is still a busy trade route between southern mainland Greece and Crete.

A systematic search of the wreck revealed a group of bronze and badly weathered marble statues, as well as the Antikythera Mechanism, in what remained of its original wooden casing.

In 2005, an X-ray tomography machine was brought from Britain to the National Archaeological museum of Athens, which houses the device's corroded and sediment-encrusted remains. Researchers soon found the gear structure — including the number of teeth cut into the wheels — corresponded to known theories of celestial cycles.

"It's like a medical scanner, but instead of putting people in it, we put the Antikythera Mechanism," Yanis Bitsakis, a co-author of the Nature report, told The Associated Press of the technology used to study the device.

Bitsakis, of Athens University's Center for History and Paleography, said finding the Olympian dial on the device was a surprise. Greece's ancient games had important religious significance and were commonly used dates for historical reference.

"We were astonished because this is not an astronomic cycle but an Olympian cycle, one of social events ... One does not need a piece of high technology to keep track of a simple four-year cycle," he said. "It is perhaps not extravagant to see the mechanism as a microcosm illustrating the temporal harmonization of human and divine order."

In a second new find, also reported in Nature on Thursday, Bitsakis and fellow researchers found that month names etched onto the Antikythera Mechanism were consistent with ones used in Corinthian colonies in Sicily. This provides the first possible link with the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who died there about 100 years before the device was built, Bitsakis said.

"This is an interesting — not direct link but possible link — with the town where Archimedes used to work. It is the first link of this kind," he said.

Athens National Archaeological Museum