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  • Writer's pictureJ.P. Robinson

The World's Oldest Computer

The following article is an extract taken from the chapter 'Out Of Time And Place' from The Myth Of Man by J.P. Robinson.

Labelled as one of the most extraordinary finds in history, the Antikythera Mechanism is a bronze artefact only 20 cm in height which was discovered on the sea floor near the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Found amongst the greatest horde of Greek treasures ever found, this ancient 2,000 year old analogue computer is the oldest in existence, and has altered the way we understand the technological capabilities of our ancient past.

Back in 1900, after sheltering from a storm, a team of sponge divers decided to try their luck underwater and it was here that they inadvertently discovered a Roman haul, the likes of which have never been found all in one place since.

(Above) At over 2,000 years old, the Antikythera Mechanism is the most sophisticated machine ever recovered from ancient times.

In 1976, famous French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau revisited the site and discovered much more cargo which had been missed during the earlier dives back in 1900. Amongst the bronze figurines and remaining timber of the vessel, Cousteau and his team uncovered 36 silver coins along with some bronze coins, all of which would help date the ship and its cargo, whilst revealing the route of its last voyage.

It is generally accepted that the vessel received its cargo from areas in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and the Aegean, and was most likely heading west, maybe to Italy. Coin experts discovered that the majority of Cousteau’s haul of coins had in fact originated from the ancient Greek cities of Pergamon and Ephesus, situated on the west coast of modern day Turkey, dating back to between 70-60 BC.

It was among the beautiful and precious Greek statues that the divers discovered what became labelled as Item 15,087 in the Athens Museum, an item which had split into several pieces of badly corroded lumps of bronze. This rare and remarkable object only came to light once researchers discovered the small gear wheels hidden amongst the metal, and it was at this point that they began to realise the significance on the find.

For decades, scientists had to rely more on imagination than facts as they struggled to come to terms with the sheer sophistication and complexity of what would become known as the Antikythera Mechanism. Over the past fifty years however, scientific research began to reveal the once hidden secrets of the ancient machine.

Dated from around the end of the 2nd century BC, it is now considered to be the most sophisticated mechanism in the ancient world. Now understood to be a device built to monitor astronomical data and track the cycles of the solar system, nothing as complex as the Antikythera Mechanism is known for another thousand years.

But as author Charles Berlitz explained in his book on Atlantis, ancient writing has confirmed that astronomy had reached high levels of advancement in the distant past: ‘The Babylonian texts, generally expressed in astrological language, seem to indicate that the astronomers of thousands of years ago were cognizant of cosmic phenomena and theory that we have ‘discovered’ only in the last 400 years and, in several cases, as recently as the last forty years. But a peculiar feature of ancient knowledge is that the further it goes back in time, the more extensive it seems to be.’[i]

In the year 2000, a team of international scientists was formed by astronomer Professor Mike Edmunds to further investigate the complexity of the ancient device. Edmunds said, “An ancient Greek scientist has done a truly remarkable thing, he found a way of using bronze gear wheels to track the complex movements of the Moon and probably all the planets as well. It was a mechanism of truly staggering genius.”[ii]

The team immediately turned to the pioneering work of physicist Derek de Solla Price (image below), who was the first to examine the pieces of the mechanism in great detail using radiographs to bring the detail out of the bronze artefact. It was whilst employing this process that Price discovered for the first time that there were twenty-seven gears inside it, revealing a much more complicated device than had initially been suspected, after all there was no known object like it from the Hellenistic period; technology this advanced simply should not appear at this early stage of civilization.

Derek de Solla Price

In 1974, Price wrote, ‘Perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the mechanism is that it incorporates the very sophisticated device of a differential gear assembly for taking the difference between two rotations, and one must now suppose that such complex gearing is more typical of the level of Greco-Roman mechanical proficiency than has been thought on the basis of merely textual evidence. Thus this singular artifact, the oldest existing relic of scientific technology, and the only complicated mechanical device we have from antiquity, quite changes our ideas about the Greeks and makes visible a more continuous historical evolution of one of the most important main lines that lead to our modern civilization.’[iii]

The two-dimensional images acquired from the radiographs exposed the multitude of gear teeth attached to each gear, but counting them was a formidable task as each gear lay so close to another that visibility was seriously hampered.

It was Price who realised that the teeth count on the gears (should the figures correlate with already accepted astronomical numbers), could reveal some astronomical significance and purpose. And he was right. One wheel which included 127 teeth struck Price as a possible correlation with the movements of the moon. This was a revolutionary idea which Price found most disconcerting.

“Price was beginning to have sleepless nights worrying about the authenticity of the mechanism. If the ancient Greek scientists could produce these gear systems 2,000 years ago, the whole history of western technology would have to be rewritten,” explains mathematician Tony Freeth.[iv]

Price found that the number 235 was the mechanism’s key to calculating the cycles of the moon, as the Greeks knew that 19 solar years matched exactly 235 lunar months, this is known as the Metonic cycle. This initial discovery led to scientists and scholars slowly coming to terms with the technological capabilities of this ancient computer.

Only once the team led by Prof. Edmunds contacted the specialist x-ray company X-Tec, did details of the rest of the gears truly come to light. In fact, x-ray engineer Roger Hadland built a prototype machine especially for the purpose of x-raying the Antikythera Mechanism, but due to the fragility of the ancient artefact, a decision was made to transport the 8-ton machine to Athens to perform the task.

The x-rays from Hadland’s machine exposed detail never seen before and allowed the research team to accurately count the gears, teeth, and see all the hidden pieces which had eluded them to this point. Another piece of equipment was brought in at a later date which could photograph the mechanism from many different angles, allowing previously invisible surface writing to appear.

The team was now able to decipher the small ancient text inscribed on the surface that described the operation and construction of the device, which along with the incredible images they had produced, allowed the team to create a digital reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism.

(Above) A reconstructed model version of the Antikythera Mechanism reveals the complexity of the ancient device.

It is believed that the device was housed inside a box and had external handles which could be turned to manoeuvre the internal gears in order to produce precise astronomical calculations based on mathematics principles developed by the ancient Greeks. By turning a handle to a particular date, the gears would spin round and once they stopped, a wealth of astronomical information would become available: the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars, dates of upcoming solar eclipses and lunar phases, and even the speed of the Moon through the sky.

Freeth commented, “What we have realised is that the ancient Greeks had built a machine to predict the future. It was an extraordinary idea that you could take scientific theories of the time and mechanise them to see what their outputs would be many decades hence. It was essentially the first time that the human race had created a computer.”

Remarkably, the mechanism’s calendar dial was also built to compensate for the extra quarter-day in the astronomical year by turning the scale back one day every four years, thus managing to deal with leap years whose inclusion in the Julian calendar was not introduced until decades after the mechanism was apparently built.

Due to its small size, scholars believe that the object was probably intended to be portable, and most likely as a tool to teach astronomy to those with no knowledge of the subject, rather than as a navigational tool used at sea, as not only was the delicate composition of the object susceptible to the harsh salty air and water, its capacity to predict eclipses would serve no purpose to any seafarer.

This remarkable find acts as yet another reminder that our ancient past is in dire need of an update as it reveals that our ancestors had attained greater technological achievements than we are presently willing to acknowledge.

For further analysis of our ancient hidden history, please read The Myth Of Man.

[i] Charles Berlitz - Atlantis: The Lost Continent Revealed, 1984.

[ii] Documentary (2012) The 2000 Year-Old Computer - Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism.

[iii] De Solla Price, Derek (1974) Gears from the Greeks: The Antikythera Mechanism - A Calendar Computer from CA. 80 B.C. (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society)

[iv] Documentary (2012) The 2000 Year-Old Computer - Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism .


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