Ancient Computer Baffles Scientists: Antikythera Mechanism Made in 150 BC (+Videos)

June 28, 2014 Updated: April 4, 2016

Scientists had to see the Antikythera Mechanism to believe it could exist. It would have been preposterous to claim the Ancient Greeks could make a device so advanced without the artifact to prove it. 

Mathematician Tony Freeth is one of many scientists from various fields to study this mysterious hunk of corroded bronze found in an ancient Roman shipwreck. “If it hadn’t been discovered … no one would possibly believe that it could exist because it’s so sophisticated,” said Freeth in a NOVA documentary on the mechanism. 

The size of a modern laptop, the Antikythera Mechanism was made by the ancient Greeks, though it was found on a Roman ship. It could calculate astronomical changes with precision. 

Though it was discovered in 1901, it wasn’t until the 21st century that modern scanning tools allowed researchers to penetrate the corrosion. They discovered intricate and complex interlocking gears and other mechanical parts. Inscriptions on the mechanism serve as an instruction manual.

By studying the number of teeth on the gears, along with the numbers listed on the inscribed instructions, and astronomical cycles from antiquity, scientists confirmed that the mechanism could calculate the astronomical changes. 

Historian of sciences Yanis Bitsakis said the inscriptions match the style and language of the time, 150 B.C. Bitsakis commented on the mechanism in a short video clip released by the Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture and Tourism in conjunction with watch-maker Hublot and filmmaker Philippe Nicolet. 

Researchers made a model of how the computer may have looked when it was in use thousands of years ago.

The device had two sides. On one side, a dial included the 365 days of the Egyptian solar calendar as well as the 12 signs of the zodiac. Turning a crank on the side allowed the user to move the dial to a given day and see the exact position of the sun and moon as well as the phase of the moon on that day.

Antikythera Mechanism
A replica of what the Antikythera Mechanism may have looked like thousands of years ago. (Giovanni Dall’Orto/Wikimedia Commons)

Antikythera Mechanism
The other side of the Antikythera Mechanism replica. (Giovanni Dall’Orto/Wikimedia Commons)

Antikythera Mechanism
A diagram of the gears inside the Antikythera Mechanism. (Wikimedia Commons)

A dial on the back showed the metonic cycle of the moon, a period of about 19 years, and another showed eclipses of the sun and moon. It is also thought to have traced the paths of some planets.

Mathias Buttet, director of research and development for watch-maker Hublot, recreated the antique object in a modern form, incorporating it into a wrist watch.

He said in the video clip that, “This Antikythera Mechanism includes ingenious features which are not found in modern watch-making.”

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