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Antikythera Mechanism – Complete History of the Antikythera Computer

The Antikythera Mechanism: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Astronomical Computer

In the year 1900, sponge divers off the coast of the tiny Greek island of Antikythera made a startling discovery that would stun archaeologists and rewrite the history books. Amidst the remains of an ancient Roman shipwreck, they uncovered numerous artifacts dating back to between 150 and 100 BC, including bronze and marble statues, pottery, glassware, jewelry, and coins. But one find in particular would go on to capture the world‘s imagination and prove to be one of the most incredible objects of its time – a strange lump of corroded bronze and wood containing a mind-bogglingly complex system of gears.

This was the Antikythera Mechanism. And over a century of research since its discovery, it has proven to be a marvel of ancient engineering skill far ahead of its time and one of the great treasures of the ancient world. Let‘s take a closer look at the fascinating history behind this mysterious device and what it tells us about the remarkable intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks.

The Fateful Antikythera Shipwreck

The story of the Antikythera Mechanism begins in April 1900, when a team of Greek sponge divers were forced to take shelter from a storm off the island of Antikythera, located between Crete and the Greek mainland. While waiting out the rough weather, they decided to scour the sea floor for clams and happened upon the remains of an ancient shipwreck resting some 60 meters below the surface.

Returning with their ship‘s crew and the Greek Education Ministry, the sponge divers began hauling up a trove of ancient treasures from the wreck, including life-sized marble and bronze statues, luxury glassware and ceramics, precious jewelry, and mounds of coins. All told, the wreck proved to contain some of the finest ancient Greek and Roman artworks ever found. But amidst all these riches, one clump of corroded bronze and wood fragments went overlooked for two years, until an archaeologist noticed that it contained a gear wheel and brought it to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens for further study.

At first, scholars couldn‘t make heads or tails of what the object was, though some suspected it may have been some kind of astronomical instrument. After all, it had the look of a machine, with bronze parts resembling gears and plates covered with inscriptions. It wasn‘t until English physicist Derek J. de Solla Price began studying the fragments in the 1950s that its true purpose started to come to light.

Using X-ray and gamma-ray images, Price discovered the device was vastly more intricate than anyone had imagined, consisting of at least 30 interlocking geared wheels precisely cut into the bronze. He estimated that the machine had been built around 87 BC and used for calculating the motions of heavenly bodies – a sort of analog astronomical computer.

A Feat of Ancient Engineering

The more researchers have learned about the Antikythera Mechanism in the decades since Price‘s initial study, the more impressive and historically significant it has proven to be. No other artifact like it has ever been found, and nothing even approaching its level of mechanical sophistication would appear again until the development of astronomical clocks in Europe some 1,400 years later.

It‘s a testament to the extraordinary engineering capabilities of its unknown ancient Greek creators. The degree of miniaturization and complexity of the gears and dials is astonishing for a device this old and predates other known geared mechanisms by centuries. Based on the style of the Greek inscriptions, it‘s believed the Antikythera Mechanism was constructed around 150 to 100 BC, though some researchers think it could date back as early as 205 BC.

So how did it work? The mechanism consisted of a complex arrangement of at least 30 bronze gears and was covered back and front by bronze plates with astronomical and calendar markings. By turning a hand crank, the user could move forward or backward in time, with the gears inside rotating to reveal the positions of the sun, moon, and possibly the planets along the zodiac on specified dates via a series of dials and pointers on the front.

On the rear of the case were two spiral dials, one showing a 19-year calendar (matching the ancient Greek Metonic cycle) and one showing a 223-month eclipse prediction dial (matching the ancient Saros cycle). This allowed the device to track the dates of solar and lunar eclipses with impressive precision. It also had a dial showing the timing of pan-Hellenic games like the ancient Olympics every four years.

The exact way all the gears fit together to perform these advanced astronomical calculations is still not fully understood and remains an active area of research. But what is clear is that this was no mere trinket or toy – it was a serious scientific instrument incorporating cutting-edge ancient Greek astronomy, mathematics and mechanical know-how.

An Astronomical Treasure

The Antikythera Mechanism is a singular artifact, the only known example of this kind of mechanical computing device from antiquity. It provides us with a tantalizing glimpse into the remarkable astronomical knowledge and technical skill of the ancient Greeks, who we know from historical texts made sophisticated astronomical observations and developed complex mathematical models and theories for the movements of celestial bodies. But seeing those theories made manifest in a working mechanical calculator really brings home just how brilliant these ancient thinkers truly were.

The ancient Greeks had developed a geocentric (earth-centered) model of the cosmos based on nested spheres, with the sun, moon and planets rotating around the central earth on giant invisible orbs. The mathematics required to model and predict the often irregular motions of heavenly bodies through the sky with this system was highly complex. And yet, the Antikythera Mechanism proves that someone had solved the necessary equations and found a way to render this system in miniaturized gears and clockwork for practical use in tracking lunar and solar cycles, eclipses, and planetary motions.

It‘s an incredible achievement for the time and reveals a level of astronomical and mechanical engineering knowledge far beyond what many believed ancient peoples were capable of. Whoever designed and built it had to have been a genius, incorporating state-of-the-art ancient astronomy and mathematics into a useful, portable device.

So who created the Antikythera Mechanism and what was it used for? The honest answer is we still don‘t know for sure. The inscriptions mention astronomical and calendar cycles important to the ancient Greeks, so it seems to have been made for Greek users. But pinpointing exactly where and by whom remains difficult.

Based on its presumed date of manufacture and the advanced astronomical concepts it uses, some scholars believe the Antikythera Mechanism may have been influenced by the work of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus. But Hipparchus himself didn‘t begin his career until around 140 BC, so if the device does date back earlier than that, he can‘t have been directly involved. Another top astronomer candidate would be Archimedes, who died in 212 BC and was known to have built sophisticated planetaria and other mechanisms. But there‘s no hard proof for any of these speculations.

As for its purpose, it was clearly intended as an astronomical and calendrical calculator to track the cycles of the heavens. This could have had both practical uses for agriculture, navigation and timekeeping as well as religious and philosophical significance. To the ancient Greeks, the mathematical harmony and regularity of celestial motions was seen as a reflection of a divinely ordered cosmos. A device like this would have been a powerful symbol of their ability to understand and render that cosmic order in mechanical form.

But some have suggested such a complex mechanism could also have functioned as a teaching tool, a prestigious showpiece, or even a type of astrological fortune-telling device. Without any contemporary descriptions, we may never know for sure exactly how it was regarded and used. What we do know is that nothing else like it has survived from antiquity, suggesting it was a highly rare and valuable object.


The Antikythera Mechanism remains one of the most fascinating and mysterious relics of the ancient world. It‘s a singular artifact that upends assumptions about the limits of ancient science and technology. Here in one concise, portable form, we find a masterful blend of astronomical knowledge, mathematical skill and mechanical engineering that appears centuries ahead of its time.

That it was constructed at such an early date, before the development of anything else approaching its complexity, is truly mind-blowing. It provides a window into the genius of ancient Greek astronomers, mathematicians and inventors – revealing that their theories of the cosmos were not just abstract ideas, but could be rendered into precise, working physical models.

While there‘s still much we don‘t understand about this device – who exactly made it, what all its functions were, how widely such mechanisms were known in the ancient world – it‘s an object that never ceases to inspire awe at the capabilities and knowledge of ancient cultures. Today, it‘s rightly regarded as one of the wonders of the ancient world, an analog astronomical computer that seemingly didn‘t have any peers for well over a thousand years after its creation.

The Antikythera Mechanism is a reminder that ancient peoples were often far more technologically and intellectually sophisticated than many people give them credit for today. It‘s a masterpiece of human ingenuity that stands as one of the great treasures of Greek archaeology and a testament to the enduring quest of humans to understand the vast celestial cycles that guide our days, months, years and fates. Though it may forever retain some of its secrets, this ancient machine will continue to fascinate and inspire all who ponder the mysteries of the heavens.