Discovered in an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901, the freakishly advanced Antikythera Mechanism has been called the world’s first computer. A decades-long investigation into the 2,000 year-old-device is shedding new light onto this mysterious device, including the revelation that it may have been used for more than just astronomy.
The Antikythera Mechanism is one of the most fascinating and important archaeological discoveries ever made, one that reveals the remarkable technological and engineering capacities of the ancient Greeks as well as their excellent grasp of astronomy. This clock-like assembly of bronze gears and displays was used to predict lunar and solar eclipses, along with the positions of the sun, moon, and planets. It wasn’t programmable in the modern sense, but it’s considered the world’s first analogue computer. Dating to around 60BC, nothing quite like it would appear for another millennium.
Since its discovery at the bottom of the Mediterranean, scientists have sought to understand its purpose. No user manual exists, but more than a dozen pieces of classical literature make mention of similar devices. Scientists are having to figure it out by looking at it, both inside and out.
Yesterday, in an event held at the Katerina Laskaridis Historical Foundation Library in Greece, an international team of researchers announced the results of a decades-long investigation into the technological relic. Their analysis reaffirms much of what we already knew about the Antikythera Mechanism, while also providing some tantalising new details.
The machine’s physical parts are reasonably well understood, so in an effort to learn more about its intended function, the researchers took a deeper look into the tiny inscriptions meticulously etched onto the outer surfaces of its 82 surviving fragments. Some of these letters measure just 1.2 millimeters (1/20th of an inch) across, and are engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the device. To do it, the researchers used cutting-edge imaging techniques, including x-ray scanning.
“The original investigation was intended to see how the mechanism works, and that was very successful,” noted team member Mike Edmunds, a professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University. “What we hadn’t realised was that the modern techniques that were being used would allow us to read the texts much better both on the outside of the mechanism and on the inside than was done before.”
In total, researchers have now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text within the device.
“Now we have texts that you can actually read as ancient Greek, what we had before was like something on the radio with a lot of static,” explained team member Alexander Jones, a historian from New York University. “It’s a lot of detail for us because it comes from a period from which we know very little about Greek astronomy and essentially nothing about the technology, except what we gather from here.” Jones added, “So these very small texts are a very big thing for us.”
The researchers described the machine as a kind of philosopher’s instructional device. The new analysis confirms that the mechanism displayed planets, while also showing the position of the sun and the moon in the sky. But while the device had a definite astronomical purpose, it appears the machine was also used to see what the future holds. The researchers suspect this because some of the inscriptions on the device refer to the colour of a forthcoming eclipse.
“We are not quite sure how to interpret this, to be fair, but it could hark back to suggestions that the colour of an eclipse was some sort of omen or signal,” said Edmunds. “Certain colours might be better for what’s coming than other colour. If that is so, and we are interpreting that correctly, this is the first instance we have in the mechanism of any real mention of astrology rather than astronomy.”
That being said, the researchers clarified that the primary purpose of the device was astronomical, and not astrological. If anything, it was like a textbook, or what today we’d call a tablet.
“It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos,” added Jones. “It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.”
In terms of the researchers’ other findings, it appears that the device was made on the island of Rhodes, and it probably wasn’t the only one made. Slight variations in the inscriptions suggests that at least two people were involved in its construction. It’s also likely that others were recruited to manufacture the gears.