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

Text on a fragment from the back of the Antikythera Mechanism, revealed modern scanning techniques. Smithsonian Magazine

Recovered Texts Unlocked the Final Mysteries

The texts recovered by modern scanning have proven extremely helpful in unraveling the final mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism. As it turned out, much of what was written amounted to an ancient version of a user’s manual. For example, text inscribed on the device’s back is an inventory of all of its dials, and a description of what they are for and what they signify. It is from that text that we now know that the mechanism’s front had once contained a display of the planets, moving through the zodiac. There were pointers with small spheres, representing the sun, the moon, plus Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, arranged in a manner that replicated their orbit around the earth.

That display had not survived survive the ravages of time and 2000 years’ worth of salt water corrosion. Some scholars had speculated that there might have been something along those lines in the device, but those were simply educated guesses, without any hard physical proof to back them up. It was not until the device’s text was finally revealed via modern scanning, that the guesses were transformed into concrete facts.

Other recovered texts describe the risings and settings of various constellations, on different dates throughout the year. That enabled researchers to confirm that the device’s maker – or the person who commissioned its making – was an astronomer. Researchers were also able to make out handwritten text from at least two different people. That suggests that the mechanism was not made by a single person, such as the astronomer who had recorded the sightings. Instead, it had most likely been commissioned by an astronomer, who contracted a workshop to make the device according to set specifications.

Reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism and its innards. Research Gate

Scholars were also able to work out from the dates of celestial sightings described in the text just where that mechanism’s astronomer was located: somewhere around latitude 35 degrees north. That is too far north for the astronomer to have been in Egypt, and too far south for him to have been in northern Greece. However, 35 degrees is a near perfect match for somebody making observations from the Aegean island of Rhodes, just off the southwestern coast of modern Turkey. Knowing where the device was made (Rhodes), and where the vessel carrying it it sank (off Antikythera), an educated guess can be made that it had been destined for a buyer in northwestern Greece, when its ship went under.

As a result, the mystery of what the Antikythera Mechanism was has, by and large, been solved. However, there is no certainty yet about what the device was for. As described by a scholar: “We know what it did now pretty well, but why would someone want to have something like this made? For my part, I think this is something that is very likely to have been made as an educational device, something that was not for research but for teaching people about cosmology and all sorts of time-related things about our world”. Others speculate that the device was intended for use in astrology: predicting the movement of the stars and constellations, in an attempt to predict the future. The debate is ongoing.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Antikythera Mechanism Research Project – Project Overview

Live Science, June 23rd, 2016 – Ancient Greek ‘Computer’ Came With a User Guide

Mental Floss – 15 Intriguing Facts About the Antikythera Mechanism

Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2015 – Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism, the First Computer

Smithsonian Magazine, June 8th, 2016 – The World’s First Computer May Have Been Used to Tell Fortunes

Vox, May 17th, 2017 – The Antikythera Mechanism is a 2000 Year Old Computer

Wikipedia – Antikythera Mechanism