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Scientists solve mysteries of the world’s oldest computer

Another piece of the ancient computer’s puzzle has been solved.

Fundamental Research icon Fundamental Research

The 2 000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism, the first analogue computer, was a bronze hand-powered device from ancient Greece filled with complex gears. It was used to predict the positions of the planets and events like lunar and solar eclipses. The machine was even used to set the dates of the Olympic Games. Only a third of the scientific calculator had survived when it was discovered in a shipwreck off a Greek island in 1901. Ever since then, the scientific community has been trying to understand how it works and what it could have looked like.

Piecing together the full picture

Using 3D computer modelling and an ancient Greek mathematical method, a research team at University College London (UCL) has completely recreated its design and provided answers as to how the sophisticated device was able to predict astronomical phenomena so accurately. The team’s findings, including images of what it looked like and how it was constructed, were published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’. “Our work reveals the Antikythera Mechanism as a beautiful conception, translated by superb engineering into a device of genius. It challenges all our preconceptions about the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.” Split into 82 fragments when found at the bottom of the sea, much of the device’s front part was missing, which is where the complex gearing system was located. The scientists made a complete digital model, recreating the gears and nearly its entire front panel. “The Sun, Moon and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance,” lead author and UCL mechanical engineering professor Tony Freeth told the ‘BBC’. “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.”

Ancient hi-tech engineering contraption still keeping secrets

The UCL scientists and are now planning to create a full-scale replica. They are building their own physical versions to check if the design works. Still, several questions remain unanswered. Was the Antikythera Mechanism a toy, a teaching instrument, or something else? Where did the Greeks get the know-how to produce such advanced technology? It’s considered 1 000 years more advanced than anything else found from that time. “There’s no evidence that the ancient Greeks were able to build something like this. It really is a mystery,” co-author and UCL senior lecturer Adam Wojcik told ‘Live Science’. “The only way to test if they could is to try to build it the ancient Greek way. And there’s also a lot of debate about who it was for and who built it. A lot of people say it was Archimedes. He lived around the same time it was constructed, and no one else had the same level of engineering ability that he did.” Wojcik probes even further in ‘The Guardian’: “If they had the tech to make the Antikythera mechanism, why did they not extend this tech to devising other machines, such as clocks?”


Antikythera Mechanism, computer, ancient Greek, gear, device