An ancient antikythera computer was a time recorder that still perplexes researchers for its advancement over tools of its time.
The Antikythera Mechanism, discovered in 1901 on a Roman-era shipwreck in Greece, has perplexed computer experts for centuries. This hand-powered instrument was a remarkable time-keeping device, using a wing-up system to track the sun and planets meticulously. This ancient marvel also functioned as a calendar, accurately monitoring the phases of the moon and eclipses.
While the concept may seem deceptively simple, the Antikythera computer was far ahead of its time. Its technical sophistication surpassed any other tool or invention for the subsequent millennium. However, due to only a third of the device surviving (82 separate fragments and 30 corroded bronze gearwheels), researchers have been puzzled by its appearance and workings.
While previous studies had unraveled the back of the Antikythera computer, the intricate gearing system at the front remained a mystery. However, scientists from University College London recently made a breakthrough. Using 3D computer modeling, they successfully reconstructed the entire front panel, offering a glimpse into its fine details and complex parts.
Building on this progress, their next goal is to construct a full-scale replica of the Antikythera computer using modern materials. Speaking about the endeavor via Indy100, Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at UCL, said, “We believe that our reconstruction fits all the evidence that scientists have gleaned from the extant remains to date.”
He also theorized that the device tracked the sun, moon, and planets on concentric rings, as the ancient Greeks believed the sun and planets revolved around Earth. In a paper published in Scientific Reports, researchers said, “Solving this complex 3D puzzle reveals a creation of genius – combining cycles from Babylonian astronomy, mathematics from Plato’s Academy, and ancient Greek astronomical theories.”
“The sun, moon, and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance,” the paper’s lead author, Professor Tony Freeth, said about the Antikythera computer. “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.”
The Antikythera computer was originally housed in a wooden box and consisted of a complex arrangement of gears, dials, and inscriptions. It is estimated to have been created around 150-100 BCE. The mechanism was initially believed to be a simple decorative object for many years after its discovery. However, through detailed analysis, researchers unraveled its complexity and significance.
All known fragments of the Antikythera computer are stored at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens; it is accompanied by artistic reconstructions and replicas demonstrating how it may have looked and worked. The device also sheds light on the level of sophistication reached by ancient civilizations, challenging the notion of computing devices being a product of modern times.
Other notable ancient computers that have left an indelible mark on human history include the Astrolabe, which aided astronomers and navigators in determining celestial positions. The Baghdad Battery is another mysterious artifact that hints at ancient electrical knowledge. Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine also laid the foundation for modern computing.
Ancient devices like the Antikythera computer highlight humanity’s relentless pursuit of knowledge and continue to inspire as they bridge the gap between the technological past and present.