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 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.