Scientists Step Closer at Solving Mystery of 2,000-Year-Old Computer

After creating an accurate computer model of the Antikythera mechanism, scientists now need to reconstruct it in physical form.

Scientists believe they have solved one of the biggest mysteries of a 2,000-year-old device considered to be the world’s first analog computer. Discovered more than a century ago in ancient ship wreckage, the Antikythera mechanism is a remarkable hand-powered astronomical calculator.


In ancient times, the Antikythera mechanism was used to predict the movement of celestial objects, on which people calculated the trajectories of several planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The mechanism was also used to predict Moon phases, lunar eclipses, and other celestial phenomena. Perhaps the device had even more purposes but a hundred years of research have confirmed this much only.

So far, several teams of scientists have managed to create reconstructions of the mechanism, but more than two-thirds of its elements remain a mystery. Without them, the mechanism can not be activated and so far nobody could answer the question of how exactly the invention managed to calculate the motion of cosmic bodies.

British researchers, led by materials science expert Adam Wojcik, claim they have the answer. So far, they have managed to create a digital model of the mechanism, but they have yet to accurately build a physical replica of it to test their theory.

Computer model of the cosmos display of the Antikythera mechanism. Credit: Tony Freeth
Computer model of the cosmos display of the Antikythera mechanism. Credit: Tony Freeth

The Antikythera mechanism was discovered by divers in 1901, along with more artifacts in the wreckage of a merchant ship off the Greek island of Antikythera. The vessel is believed to have wrecked in the 1st century BC. on the way from Peloponnese to Rome.

The eroded brass particles were barely noticeable at first, but a hundred years later, there is no doubt that the Antikythera mechanism is a mechanical masterpiece and easily one of the most attractive artifacts ever discovered.

Originally stored in a wooden box, the mechanism was covered with inscriptions and contained over 30 bronze gears connected to dials and pointers. As the handle rotated, images of planets and other celestial bodies attached to concentric circles moved.

It took more than a century before scientists could get a better idea of the Antikythera mechanism using X-ray and 3D technologies in 2005/06. Until then, it was impossible to read the miniature inscriptions on the inner surfaces. Scientists managed to recreate certain parts of the device although only a third of its original pieces have ever been found. This means that the only way to understand it, experts need to find every single missing part by themselves.

Nevertheless, these reconstructions and 3D images of the Antikythera mechanism from 2005 became the foundation of many subsequent studies, including the one we have here.

The scientific team created an accurate digital replica of the Antikythera mechanism. They used the older X-ray studies as well as ancient Greek mathematics and successfully recreated the front gear of the device that was used to calculate the movement of celestial objects.

Scientists still need to reconstruct this digital model in physical form. If successful, they will attempt a second reconstruction using ancient instruments. Credit: Tony Freeth
Scientists still need to reconstruct this digital model in physical form. If successful, they will attempt a second reconstruction using ancient instruments. Credit: Tony Freeth

Researchers explained that their new model is significantly more intricate than anything achieved in the past. Unlike previous cases when certain aspects of the Antikythera mechanism were neglected and put aside, this scientific team took every single hole and element into account which resulted in much more accurate results.

And even though the team has also presented a rendering of the entire Antikythera mechanism, most of the mysteries of the device remain unsolved. The team will now have to reconstruct the device in physical form using modern instruments to test their digital models. If successful, they will attempt to reconstruct the Antikythera mechanism using tools and ancient methods in an attempt to replicate the work of the ancient craftsmen.


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Sources:

Ferreira, B. (n.d.). Scientists have unlocked the secrets of the ancient ‘antikythera mechanism’.
Freeth, T., Higgon, D., Dacanalis, A., MacDonald, L., Georgakopoulou, M., & Wojcik, A. (2021, March 12). A model of the cosmos in the ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism.
The Guardian. (2021, March 12). Scientists may have solved ancient mystery of ‘first computer’.
Liberatore, S. (2021, March 12). Replica of THE 2,000-year-old Antikythera mechanism reveals how ancient Greeks calculated the cosmos.
O’Neill, M. (2021, March 12). 2,000-Year-Old Greek Astronomical Calculator: Experts recreate a Mechanical cosmos for the world’s first computer.

Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.
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