Decoding Ancient Mystery of First Computer

Researchers claim breakthrough in study of 2,000-year-old Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator found in sea - often described as the world’s first analogue computer.

From the moment it was discovered more than a century ago, scholars have puzzled over the Antikythera mechanism, a remarkable and baffling astronomical calculator that survives from the ancient world.


The hand-powered, 2,000-year-old device displayed the motion of the universe, predicting the movement of the five known planets, the phases of the moon and the solar and lunar eclipses. But quite how it achieved such impressive feats has proved fiendishly hard to untangle.


Now researchers at UCL believe they have solved the mystery – at least in part – and have set about reconstructing the device, gearwheels and all, to test whether their proposal works. If they can build a replica with modern machinery, they aim to do the same with techniques from antiquity.


“We believe that our reconstruction fits all the evidence that scientists have gleaned from the extant remains to date,” said Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at UCL. While other scholars have made reconstructions in the past, the fact that two-thirds of the mechanism are missing has made it hard to know for sure how it worked.


The mechanism, often described as the world’s first analogue computer, was found by sponge divers in 1901 amid a haul of treasures salvaged from a merchant ship that met with disaster off the Greek island of Antikythera. The ship is believed to have foundered in a storm in the first century BC as it passed between Crete and the Peloponnese en route to Rome from Asia Minor.


The knowledge of this technology was lost at some point in antiquity. Similar technological works later appeared in the medieval Byzantine and Islamic worlds, but works with similar complexity did not appear again until the development of mechanical astronomical clocks in Europe in the fourteenth century


Whether or not UCL's model works, more mysteries remain. It is unclear whether the Antikythera mechanism was a toy, a teaching tool or had some other purpose. And if the ancient Greeks were capable of such mechanical devices, what else did they do with the knowledge?


“Although metal is precious, and so would have been recycled, it is odd that nothing remotely similar has been found or dug up,” Wojcik said. “If they had the tech to make the Antikythera mechanism, why did they not extend this tech to devising other machines, such as clocks?”

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