> Weird and Wonderful > Antikythera
An Ancient Astrological Computer
So how old are computers? And what were the original computers designed
Back In Time
Sure... we all know about the rapid development of modern computers
in the 20th and now 21st century.
- frankly - we both know if you have a computer that's anything
over five years old, then you probably think of it as being "ancient."
let’s step back a wee bit further in time, shall we?
In fact... let’s step back - to say - over 2000 years ago
and to the lands of ancient Greece. That's because it's here, in
ancient Greece, we discover that the very first ancient ancestor
of the modern computer was invented. This ancient ancestor of the
modern computer was an astronomical mechanism designed to locate
the zodiacal positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets
(Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).
The ancient ancestor of your modern computer was a Greek device
- now called the Antikythera Mechanism - designed for the specialized
purpose of casting astrological horoscopes.
Greek Sponge Divers
How do we know about this ancient astrologer's tool, you might rightly
according to Dr. John H. Lienhard, PhD Professor Emeritus of Mechanical
Engineering and History at the University of Houston, in 1900, six
Greek sponge divers and their crew were much by chance blown off
course in the Mediterranean between the islands of Kythera and Crete.
anchor by the tiny Aegean island, Antikythera, these sponge divers
decided to make the most of their misfortune and dove into the unfamiliar
waters of Antikythera to see if they could find any sponges. What
they found, however, was a badly decomposed ancient trading ship
that had sunk around 80 BC.
to Lienhard, due to this being the first ancient wreck ever discovered,
the Greek government soon after sent the sponge divers back on an
official navy ship. Diving 140 feet down for a solid year, the divers
brought up statues, amphoras, and various other trade goods.
appears that one of their most fascinating finds may have been a
2000-year-old computer, now dubbed “The Antikythera Mechanism.”
The mechanism was comprised of a badly corroded set of brass gears,
encased in a wooden frame about the size of a shoebox. Unfortunately,
in 1900, not knowing how to properly preserve ancient wood, the
frame collapsed and broke apart.
the time authorities and experts figured the gadget had to have
been some sort of kind of navigational astrolabe, and so the fragments
lay neglected in a museum with little or no interest shown in what
the device might be. But this not where the story ends...
American In 1959
half a century later, in 1958, a young British physicist and historian
of science, Derek Price, became interested in studying this ancient
device and came to what could be considered some startling conclusions.
Price wrote in the Scientific American in 1959 what was
thought by many to be a monumental study of the time. Price identified
this device as being from circa 80 BC. And while much of the original
gearing was obviously missing, there was enough left to show that
the device had likely been intended to provide the motions of the
Moon and Sun.
mechanism is like a great astronomical clock without an escapement,
or like a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts
to save tedious calculation. It is a pity that we have no way
of knowing whether the device was turned automatically or by hand.
might have been held in the hand and turned by a wheel at the
side so that it would operate as a computer, possibly for astrological
use. I feel it is more likely that it was permanently mounted,
perhaps set in a statue, and displayed as an exhibition piece.”
Scientific American in 1959
But The Device Was More Sophisticated
But this, also, is not where the story ends... while there has apparently
been more than a little scuttlebutt in the scientific community
over Price’s alleged fudging with data, there has now been
a totally new analysis performed by Michael Wright, the Curator
of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum in London, utilizing
tomography. In his more recent analysis, Wright believes that the
device was much more sophisticated than Price ever thought or imagined.
While Price appeared to be on the right track, rather than a front
dial with Sun and Moon pointers, Wright feels certain that he has
discovered a much more elaborate front dial. It's a front dial that
transforms the face of the mechanism into a complete planetarium
with eight pointers.
to Wright: “These eight pointers show not just the places
of the sun and moon in the sky but the other five planets then known
and the last pointer shows the date.” March 13, 2004 Interview
- ABC Radio National
the first ancient ancestor of the computer was a Greek astronomical
mechanism designed to locate the zodiacal positions of the Sun,
the Moon, and the five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and
According to Phillip Ball - Nature 454, 561 (July 31, 2008)
- recent discoveries point to the possibility that the Antikythera
have even timetabled the ancient Olympic Games.
is now speculation (based on newly discovered inscriptions on the
device) potentially linking its invention to Archimedes (287 BC
– 212 BC) a Greek mathematician, engineer, and astronomer
all this... the debate nevertheless still continues on. Was the
Antikythera Mechanism merely
a "play toy" for the rich? Or was it a practical device
used by astrologers of the time to cast ancient horoscope charts?
back to Weird and Wonderful