World’s oldest computer a thing of wonder: The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism is a sophisticated, scientific instrument built in Ancient Greece around 150 BC. We now know it to be the oldest computer known. It is named after the island near where it was found. It had been lost for 2000 years in a Roman shipwreck below the seas off Antikythera island, until it was discovered in 1901 by divers.

Because of the amount of corrosion and the number of missing parts, the purpose was puzzled over for another century. I remember watching a documentary many years ago when the the mystery of this wonder had provoked some fanciful theories. I remember one theory was that, as the ancient world never had anything as sophisticated, it must have come from an ancient civilisation now lost, or had arrived from another planet!

As a Bible teacher I am constantly having to remind people that the peoples we read of in the Bible were not as primitive as we often think. they were very much like us. That is why their problems and struggles are so relevant to us, as Christ was their answer so he is the answer for our time.

The original 81 shards of the Antikythera were recovered from under the sea rusted and clumped together in a nearly indecipherable mass. In 2006, archaeologists used high resolution X-ray tomography to through the layers of dirt and rust. They were able to read and translate the Greek inscriptions. It had come from the ancient world and was the oldest computer ever discovered. The historians were led to realise that this dictionary-size assemblage of 37 interlocking dials, crafted with the precision and complexity of a 19th-century Swiss clock, was used for modelling and predicting the movements of the heavenly bodies, as well as the dates and locations of upcoming Olympic games.

First a reproduction was made by Michael Wright, a former curator at the Science Museum in London.

Antikythera’s user interface was simple, operated by a simple knob on the side. The intricacy inside was a mathematical model which tracked the movements of planetary bodies. Not only that, but it incorporated a series of sub-mechanisms to account for the eccentricities of the planetary rotations.

A dial on the faceplate featured the Greek zodiac and an Egyptian calendar. It had pointers showed the location of the moon and the five planets known then. On the machine’s back, an upper dial showed a 19-year calendar (matching the solunar cycle) and the timing of upcoming Olympic games. A lower dial showed a 76-year cycle (when the Olympic and solunar cycles coincided) and indicated the months in which lunar and solar eclipses could be expected.

Now Apple software engineer Andrew Carol has knocked up a faithful recreation of the machine out of Technical Lego.

The advantage of this Lego version, and the video of it is that we can understand how the computer worked. Some people are moved emotionally by great music. As I watched the video I could not help but be moved by the wonder of the original Antikythera mechanism, despite watching this clever but crude representation.

Watch and wonder. This is a gadget like no other.

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