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Antikythera mechanism: Ancient celestial calculator

A picture taken at the Archaeological Museum in Athens on September 14, 2014 shows a piece of the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2nd-century B.C. device known as the world's oldest computer which tracked astronomical phenomena and the cycles of the Solar System. Here we see what looks like a large gear.

An image taken at the Archaeological Museum in Athens on September 14, 2014 shows a bit of the Antikythera Mechanism, a second-century B.C. device referred to as the world’s oldest computer which tracked astronomical phenomena and the cycles of the solar system.(Image credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Antikythera mechanism can be an ancient shoebox-sized device that’s sometimes called the world’s oldest computer because of its capability to perform astronomical calculations.

Discovered by sponge divers off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, the remains of the mechanism are actually preserved in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Only 82 fragments, comprising about one-third of the initial mechanism, survive today, researchers wrote in a 2021 study published in the journal Scientific Reports (opens in new tab). It had been built around 2,200 years back.

What did the Antikythera mechanism do?

The mechanism was with the capacity of performing different calculations, also it may help track the motions of the sun, moon and five of the planets; it might even tell when athletic competitions, like the Olympics, were set to occur, the researchers wrote. “It had been a mechanical computer of bronze gears which used ground-breaking technology to create astronomical predictions, by mechanizing astronomical cycles and theories,” the team wrote in the journal article.

Because the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, scholars have already been attempting to understand these devices. And although they will have made considerable progress, many questions remain unanswered. For instance, researchers still aren’t sure who managed to get. Some scholars have posited that the Greek inventor Archimedes (287 B.C. to 212 B.C.) was the mechanism’s creator, but that is uncertain. The inscriptions on the mechanism are written in Greek.

Whoever made these devices could have had to learn a good deal about astronomy, metallurgy and mechanology, Aristeidis Voulgaris, team leader of the Functional Reconstruction of Antikythera Mechanism (Frame) project, told Live Science within an email. This project aims to reconstruct what the mechanism originally appeared as if and gain an improved knowledge of it. In addition they could have needed “great hand dexterity,” he noted.

Engraving illustration of the last hour of Archimedes. Here we see him sitting as a desk, drawing symbols on the floor. He is being interrupted by a soldier entering through the doorway who is carrying a sword and shield.

An engraving illustration of the final hour of Archimedes, the mathematician who died in 212 B.C. or 211 B.C. once the Romans captured Syracuse, Sicily. (Image credit: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

The recovered fragments of the mechanism contained writing and inscriptions, and within the last 2 decades, scientists have already been in a position to read more of the Greek inscriptions using high-tech imaging methods, such as for example 3D X-ray scanning. It has enabled them to find out more about the way the mechanism worked.

CT scans “revealed inscriptions describing the motions of sunlight, moon and all five planets known in antiquity and how these were displayed at the front end as an ancient greek language cosmos,” the researchers wrote in the Scientific Reports article. The mechanism used “cycles from Babylonian astronomy, mathematics from Plato’s Academy and ancient greek language astronomical theories,” the researchers wrote.

The mechanism represents “an even of technology exceeding other things of the type for which we’ve either physical remains or detailed descriptions from antiquity,” Alexander Jones, a professor of the annals of the precise sciences in antiquity at NY University’s Institute for the analysis of the Ancient World, wrote in his book “A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World (opens in new tab)” (Oxford University Press, 2017).

What did the Antikythera mechanism appear to be?

A picture taken at the Archaeological Museum in Athens on September 14, 2014 that shows pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2nd-century B.C. device known as the world's oldest computer which tracked astronomical phenomena and the cycles of the Solar System. Here we see several items on display, all quite eroded. In the center there is a large piece that has some writing on it in an old language.

More bits of the Antikythera Mechanism at the Archaeological Museum in Athens. (Image credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The authors of the Scientific Reports article discovered that someone viewing leading of the mechanism could have seen dials that showed the movements of the moon, sun, lunar nodes (points where in fact the moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic, the road sunlight seems to take through the constellations), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and also the Zodiac calendar.

The trunk of the mechanism had dials showing the Metonic cycle (a 19-year cycle and the phases of the moon occur on a single days of the entire year), the Callippic cycle (an interval of 76 years, add up to four Metonic cycles), the Olympiad cycle (once the Olympics were held every four years), the Saros cycle (an interval greater than 18 years between lunar eclipses) and the exeligmos (an interval greater than 54 years, or three Saros cycles).

Between your front and back of the mechanism were a massive selection of gears, designed so that the dials would depict the right timing of all cycles.

“Suppose a user of the Antikythera Mechanism really wants to check eclipse predictions for a specific month some years ahead. An individual winds the mechanism forwards to the required date, as shown using one of its calendars,” Tony Freeth, a researcher with the Antikythera Mechanism RESEARCH STUDY, wrote in a paper published in 2014 in the journal PLOS One (opens in new tab).

Antikythera mechanism shipwreck

This massive marble head found by the latest excavations at the Antikythera wreck site is thought to represent the Greek demigod Heracles. Here we see a diver underwater examining a very worn marble sculpture head.

This massive marble head found by the most recent excavations at the Antikythera wreck site is considered to represent the Greek demigod Heracles. (Image credit: Nikos Giannoulakis/Hellenistic Ministry of Culture and Sports/Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece)

Although ship that held the Antikythera mechanism was discovered greater than a century ago, the wreck is not fully excavated. How big is the ship that carried it really is unclear and precisely how widely the artifacts are dispersed can be somewhat uncertain. Its location and depth ensure it is hard to excavate, based on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (opens in new tab) (WHOI). The website reaches an angle on the seafloor around 130 to 165 feet (40 to 50 m) below the top, meaning it’s too deep for scuba divers to excavate for long but too shallow to be investigated by remotely operated vehicles, based on the WHOI.

Despite these difficulties a fresh program of excavation has been carried out by way of a team of archaeologists and new artifacts continue being found, shedding light on which the ship, which likely sank around 65 B.C. was like.Their finds add a bronze arm that has been once mounted on a statue, a game, possible remains of an ancient throne, and a marble statue head of Hercules, Live Science previously reported.

Researchers have noted that lots of of the artifacts were luxury goods designed for the wealthy. Up to now, the recent excavations haven’t uncovered any new remains of the mechanism.

Excavations in 2016 at the Antikythera shipwreck found a nearly intact skull, including the cranial parietal bones.

Excavations in 2016 at the Antikythera shipwreck found a nearly intact skull, like the cranial parietal bones. (Image credit: Brett Seymour, EUA/WHOI/ARGO)

In 2016, archaeologists unearthed the ancient skeleton of a male at the shipwreck, Live Science reported at that time. Recently, scientists have already been attempting to extract DNA for more information concerning the man.

Researchers still aren’t sure why the mechanism was on the ship to begin with. “This is no object you might casually at the mercy of the chance of travel,” Jones wrote in his book. As the mechanism might not have already been a one-of-a-kind device, it could surely have already been something of considerable value. One possibility is a technician was transporting these devices to its intended owner, Jones wrote, noting a storm likely caused the ship to sink, taking the mechanism down with it. Where in fact the ship originated from and where it had been going to is really a subject of ongoing research and debate among scholars.

Antikythera mechanism’s ‘start date’

Scholars remain debating the Antikythera mechanism’s exact “start date,” the initial date which all calculations made on the mechanism are based. Research published in March 2022 on the preprint server arXiv (opens in new tab) proposed Dec. 22, 178 B.C. because the mechanism’s start date. Researchers noted that on that day, there is a lunar eclipse, accompanied by the winter solstice, accompanied by a festival focused on the goddess Isis. While Isis was an Egyptian goddess, she was respectable in Greece at the moment.

However, other (opens in new tab) teams of scholars have (opens in new tab) proposed May 12, 204 B.C. as the utmost likely start date, noting that on that day, a lunar eclipse could have been visible in Greece, and that date is nearer to the life span of Archimedes. It is possible he or a person who worked in his workshop may have built this product.

Additional resources

Bibliography

Freeth, T. et al. (2021) “A Style of the Cosmos in the ancient greek language Antikythera Mechanism” Scientific Reports 5821

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-84310-w (opens in new tab)

Freeth, T. (2014) “Eclipse Prediction on the ANCIENT GREEK LANGUAGE Astronomical Calculating Machine Referred to as the Antikythera Mechanism” PlosOne

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0103275 (opens in new tab)

Jones, A. (2017) “A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World” Oxford University Press

Voulgaris, A. et al (2022) “THE ORIGINAL Calibration Date of the Antikythera Mechanism following the Saros spiral mechanical Apokatastasis” arXiv

https://arxiv.org/abs/2203.15045 (opens in new tab)

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus

Owen Jarus is really a regular contributor to call home Science who writes about archaeology and humans’ past. He’s got also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), amongst others. Owen includes a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.

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