The Mysterious Antikythera Mechanism is the World's Oldest Known Computer

A reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism. Global Spec

Lingering Doubts

From the way it was made and the manner in which it worked, the Antikythera Mechanism was effectively the earliest known analogue computer – manufactured over 2100 years ago. However, the mechanism’s very existence, and the complexity of its design and manufacture, argued that it must have had earlier predecessors before things reached the high quality of the discovered device. So the world’s earliest functioning analog computer could well have been made centuries earlier.

Once it was demonstrated that the Antikythera find was an analog computer, that predated Jesus, research turned to figuring out its purpose and how it was used. Professor Price’s paper had pointed the way, but at the time of his publishing in 1974, and for many years afterwards, his findings were persuasive to many, but not quite conclusive. Once researchers were able to take a good look at the device and its innards, it became clear that it had to be some kind of calculating device. However, whether it worked the way Price had deduced, was still up in the air.

We now know that the device enabled users to tell how the skies would look for decades to come. That included the positions of the sun and moon, lunar phases, the paths of planets, and even eclipses. Several writers from Antiquity, including Cicero, had mentioned the existence of such devices, but the Antikythera Mechanism is the only one ever recovered. Unfortunately, the technology was lost during the Roman era, and the only known sample we know of ended up at the bottom of the sea, its secrets forgotten for over two millennia.

The Antikythera Wreck. Smithsonian Magazine

Current researchers have benefited greatly from the leaps and bounds that scanning technology has taken in recent years. In the first few decades after the Antikythera Mechanism’s discovery, the device’s advanced state of corrosion made it difficult for scholars to properly see what they were looking at, let alone decipher its significance. Most intriguing was that observers could see that some of the mechanism’s fragments contained what seemed to be Greek letters and words. However, they were so obscured by corrosion so as to be indecipherable.

As one scholar put it: “Before, we could make out isolated words, but there was a lot of noise —letters that were being misread or gaps in the text … Now, we have something that you can actually read as ancient Greek. We can tell what these texts were saying to an ancient observer”. That is thanks to new imaging techniques such as 3-D X-ray scanning, that have finally enabled researchers to legibly read about 3400 characters that were inscribed on those parts of the device that were recovered. That is a lot, but it is only a fraction of the roughly 20,000 characters that scholars estimate had been inscribed on the mechanism when it was whole.