The Antikythera Computer 12

Computer generated view of Antikythera Analogue Computer


In 1900, off the coast of the Greek Isle of Antikythera, fishermen discovered a sunken wreck from Roman times lying 150 feet underwater. The recovery operation was ground breaking given the deep-sea diving equipment of the time. A modern underwater archaeologist described it as being like ‘drunks with coal scuttles on their heads, working in 5 minute shifts, in the dark.’

They salvaged some incredible finds, Alexandrian glassware, coins and classical statues. The most remarkable was a lump of bronze encrusted in rock and barnacles. It turned out to be a mechanical computer from 250 BC. Turning a handle worked a 37 gear system able to predict the positions of the sun, moon and planets, lunar phases and eclipses.

The cleaned-up original find

The find was so anomalous the ‘Was-God-an-Astronaut’ Brigade claimed it was evidence we were visited by spacemen. Unfortunately the mechanism worked on the old Greek Ptolemaic model of the solar system, where the sun and planets revolve round the earth. Any spaceman worth his salt knows the earth goes round the sun.

Placing the earth at the centre makes the mathematics difficult. So difficult, Isaac Newton was still struggling with them 1800 years later. And he was one of the biggest brain-boxes of his age. With everything revolving round the earth, the planets seem to loop backwards across the sky. This is why the Greeks named them ‘planets’ meaning ‘wanderers’. This ‘retrograde movement’ is due to changes in our relative positions as we all orbit the sun.

To give some idea how remarkable Antikythera computer was:

  • Another 1,000 years were to pass before Arab astronomers built similar, simpler, mechanical calendar computers.
  • Medieval clock-makers only began to show the same mechanical finesse in the 1300s.
  • It is believed when similar devices were developed in the 17th and 18th centuries they helped kick start the Industrial Revolution.

Not bad considering Greek and Roman mathematics was hampered by having no zero, which was not introduced until the Crusades (around 1200 AD) brought Arab science and numbers to the west. The Romans used letters for numbers I, V, X, L, C and M, and we originally followed suite.

The Antikythera machine begs the question, if it was so revolutionary why did it not catch on like the contemporary navigator’s tool the simple astrolabe, or inspire a technological revolution like computers in our own time?

The Ancient Greeks and Romans certainly understood complex technology.

The Greeks had steam engines to open temple doors.

In 200 BC Archimedes used a concave mirror to focus the sun’s rays into beam to burn a Roman fleet.

They used hydraulics to build all sorts of mechanical marvels, like statues of gods that moved and even spoke.

They had waterwheel powered trip hammers in their foundries to crush ore and beat metal.

The Romans could flood an arena to hold sea battles one day and drain it for wild beast hunts the next. They even made water run uphill.

The Romans manufactured everything, from pottery to books, on an industrial scale. They invented production lines, where individual workers mass produced a single part for other workers to assemble: a technique not rediscovered until England’s Industrial Revolution in the 18th century; and not fully exploited until Henry Ford developed his ‘Model T’ automobile.

Maybe the device was too complex to be mass produced? Perhaps it did not seem worthwhile to invest all that effort into something with no obvious  benefit other than an executive toy?

The general consensus is that it was made by a highly-skilled craftsman, for a multi-millionaire to impress his friends. But if that is the case, surely dozens of copycat pieces could have been made for those envious friends?

Perhaps they were, but were lost over the centuries; or even melted down for scrap when they broke. If this one had not been on a wrecked ship, found by accident, we would still be ignorant the Ancient Greeks possessed analogue computers.

12 thoughts on “The Antikythera Computer

  1. Reply D. Wallace Peach May 13,2017 12:28 am

    This makes me wonder how many times civilization has risen and fallen, and how many times we are starting over. It’s fascinating.

    • Reply Paul May 15,2017 1:38 am

      Thanks for the brilliant comment. You have hit the nail squarely on the head. People exactly the same as us have been round for 200,000 years and yet our civilisation can only be traced back to its very earliest origins some 10,000 years. Finds are emerging that show previously unsuspected complex societies existed in lands that was flooded since the ice age ended …implying their origin must be further back in time. The ice age covered most of North America (down to new York) and Europe (down to London) with glaciers a mile high for tens of thousands of years. If we are not yet out of the ice age cycle but just in a warm inter-glacial period, what will be left of our civilisation after ice has buried it for 20,000 years.

  2. Reply Robbie Cheadle May 11,2017 5:51 pm

    This is a very impressive post, Paul. You certainly are well informed about history and important historical findings.

  3. Reply dgkaye May 11,2017 1:35 am

    Ok, that’s just fascinating! 🙂

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  5. Reply Sally Cronin May 10,2017 5:42 pm

    Fascinating stuff Paul and just back to normal after nearly five days on light duties and helping in the garden. You are right… one wonders what might have happened if the Romans had taken some of their inventions further.. perhaps like many empires in our modern world their politics went to pot and inventive minds were dismissed as unworthy of attention. Or perhaps as in the car industry some inventions threatened to put state run or big corporations at the time out of business and were discredited. Anyway have put in the Blogger and will share around.. brilliant. hugsxx

    • Reply Paul May 11,2017 12:41 am

      You know Sally, it’s funny you should mention that because there is a great story from Seutonius 12 Caesars.
      After the great fire of Rome Nero turned a large part of the city into his Imperial palace the Golden House. Rome was almost abandoned and he probably did this to get the plebs working and earning…. and coz he was an ego maniac as well. When he was overthrown there was the year of the 4 Caesars (64 AD I think) the last was Vespasian who restored order. He started building the Colosseum… It was a way of continuing Nero’s work program. It was called the Colosseum because of a colossal statue of Nero as the sun god. The work continued under Vespasian’s son Titus.
      Suetonius reports that an inventor came with a powered crane that could reduce the building time in half and Titus was affronted because it would cause so much unemployment. So you are right maybe they kept the lid on some inventions for the good of the state.
      Interestingly a few years ago they translated a foundation stone from the Colosseum. It had a later inscription carved into it, but under the inscription were holes that originally held lead letter pegs and they were able to reconstruct the original dedication of the Colosseum. Part of it implied the money to build it came from the loot taken from the temple at Jerusalem when Vespasian and Titus crushed the Jewish Revolt in 70 AD.

  6. Reply Shehanne Moore May 9,2017 11:25 pm

    Paul, another fascinating piece with a suitable air of mystery about it. I just want to know more now!!

    • Reply Paul May 10,2017 12:52 am

      You know this took about 3 weeks to write because I had it in my head I wanted to write how history would have been different if they had computers and steam engines… but to be honest I don’t think you can go so far back and do alternative history… nothing would be as we know it. Not a thing. But still you wonder why did they never take that leap? Imagine if Rome had steam engines and railways… they would have conquered the world.. well more of it and the empire probably would have lasted longer!

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