It was in 1900 that sponge divers made one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries all time while diving off Point Glyphadia on the Greek island of Antikythera. 148 feet below the surface of the crisp blue Mediterranean was the wreck of a Roman cargo vessel, inside were many large ancient artefacts. There were bronze and marble statues, unique glass, jewellery and coins. These things alone would have been a fantastic find. However, in 1901, something else was found — an ancient form of a computer. It would change everything historians knew about the ability of the ancients.
It isn’t known how the Antikythera Mechanism came to be in the Roman ship, and some have speculated the item was plunder, being taken to form part of a parade by a triumphant Caesar in Rome. Some believe the device to have been the work of Hipparchus of Rhodes, though ancient sources suggest that Archimedes may have been ultimately responsible. After discovering the gears, archaeologists believed that the device was an astronomical clock. Still, it was far more complicated than that, and few thought it could ever have been built at the same time as everything else that was being pulled from the wreck. It would later be dated to around the second century BC.
Investigations into the problematic piece were dropped, the device primarily ignored and written off until 1951 when the eminent British physicist and historian of science Derek John de Solla Price became interested in what the discovery had actually been. Price and the Greek nuclear physicist Charalampos Karakalos published an extensive paper in 1974 under the title Gears from the Greeks: The Antikythera Mechanism, a Calendar Computer from c. 80 BC. The comprehensive 70-page work included x-rays and gamma-ray images of the device and laid out how it may have worked. Price was the first to conclude that the Antikythera Mechanism had been used to predict the position of planets and stars dependent on the month. He stated that the main gear would move and represented the calendar year, this, in turn, would move the smaller cogs which represented the planets, sun and moon. With the user providing input and the clockwork mechanism making a calculation to give an output, the device could legitimately be considered a basic computer.
“The mechanism is like a great astronomical clock … or like a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts to save tedious calculation.”
Derek J. de Solla Price, Scientific American
The mechanism had initially been recovered in a single heavily encrusted piece, soon breaking into three and, since, many more as smaller bits have fallen off through handling and cleaning. Other parts of the device were later found on the sea bed during an expedition by the famed French diver Jacques Cousteau. There are overall 83 known surviving parts with seven of those being mechanically significant. These parts contain the majority of the device’s mechanism and inscription. There are also sixteen smaller parts to the device which have incomplete engravings.
The device was encased in wood and had doors, inscriptions on the back acting as an instruction manual of sorts. Inside the device, there is a front face and a rear face, with internal clockwork gears working an adjustable mechanism controlled by a hand crank. Adjusting the device would allow the user to predict astronomical positions and solar events such as eclipses decades in advance. The 30+ gears of the machine would follow the movements of the moon and sun through the zodiac, even modelling the moon’s orbit.
Knowledge of the technology used to create the Antikythera Mechanism mechanism was lost. Despite similar devices appearing during the Islamic golden age, nothing of such complexity would be made again until the invention of the astronomical clock in the fourteenth century. However, there is evidence that the devices may not have been all that rare in Ancient Greece.
Writing in the first century BC, the famed Roman statesman Cicero mentioned two such machines that predicted the movement of celestial bodies. Cicero said that these mechanisms were built by the scientist Archimedes and brought to Rome by General Marcus Claudius Marcellus following the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC. Marcellus had taken the device with him, reportedly being saddened by the death of Archimedes whom he’d held in the highest regard. The plunder then became a family heirloom and was still in existence at the time of Cicero’s writing.
The two devices in Roman hands were said to be very different, one described as somewhat crude-looking compared to a second more ornate form. Perhaps indicating either a level of development or that unique versions of the device existed for the more affluent. The more elaborate form of the machine had been deposited at Rome’s Temple of Virtue by Marcellus. The links to Archimedes have been reinforced by later Roman writers such as Lactantius, Claudian, and Proclus. One of the last great Greek mathematicians of antiquity Pappus of Alexandria said that Archimedes had written extensively on the subject of the machines, penning a manuscript by the name of On Sphere-Making. Sadly this is now lost. Other documents do survive, however, with some even including drawings of such mechanisms and instructions on how they worked.
One of these devices was the odometer, the modern version of which is an essential component of any car dashboard. The original invention was used by the ancient Romans to place their famous mile markers alongside Roman roads. While the first descriptions of the device came from Vitruvius around 27 BC, the odometer has been attributed to Archimedes himself over 200 years prior. When scientists attempted to build the device depicted in the images, it failed to work until the shown square gears were replaced by the cogs of the type found in the Antikythera Mechanism, leading to speculation that the mechanism and Archimedes are linked.
Tying with the reports from Cicero, it seems that the Antikythera Mechanism may well have been invented by Archimedes of Syracuse. However, it could not possibly being one of the devices mentioned, with both stated to exist in Rome long after his death. Besides the two devices already highlighted, Cicero also identifies a third in production by his friend Posidonius, again, which can’t have been the artefact found in 1901. This then leads to a conclusion that the devices were not as uncommon as perhaps initially thought, with at least four known to exist and possibly many more.
The technology of Ancient Greece and Rome was seemingly lost for centuries following the conquest of Greece by Rome in 146 BC and then subsequently the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Similar technology would appear again, however, in the Byzantine Empire before flourishing in the Islamic World. In the 9th century, the Caliph of Baghdad commissioned the Banū Mūsā brothers, both noted scholars, to write the Book of Ingenious Devices, an extensive illustrated work on technical devices, amazingly including automata. The brothers were working at the legendary Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) where Islamic scholars poured over ancient Greek and Roman texts, largely forgotten and ignored in the West. The Banū Mūsā brothers described all manner of devices that would have been considered wonders in 9th century Europe such as automatic controlling systems and feedback controllers. Other automata included fountains, musical instruments and automated cranks.
“Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion. It is a bit frightening, to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought but also in their scientific technology.”
Derek J. de Solla Price
There is a tendency in the to believe that computers, automata and other modern marvels are the work solely of Britain or the United States, that our age alone is the first to see technological innovation. Yet, this is far from the truth. While much of the world was in darkness, Rome and Greece were making spectacular advances in computation and sciences such as astronomy. While Europe was fighting off Vikings, the Islamic world was deep in study, reviving these ancient technologies and adding their own modifications and advancements. Eventually, these theories of science and philosophy would drift into the West during the enlightenment, the dark ages that had covered Europe following the fall of Rome finally being overcome.
The Antikythera Mechanism stands as a symbol of what was lost with that fall and equally what might have been possible had Greece and Rome continued to thrive. The Caliphs of Baghdad knew that these ancient empires had much to tell us and that remains true even today, with much left undiscovered about the real power and technology of philosophers, thinkers and scholars such as Archimedes, Hipparchus and hundreds more besides.