Antikythera: The Greeks made the first computer

Antikythera: The Greeks made the first computer

He said excitedly that he had not found any sponges, but that at a depth of 60 meters there was a shipwreck full of gnomes.

A dove again and the men returned with the arm of a bronze statue. Once the storm had passed, they sailed to Athens.

Treasures went abroad

At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the ancient treasures were in museums outside of Greece. Almost all of the excavations were done by foreign archaeologists and their finds were taken home.

Therefore, the Greek leaders emphasized the importance of antiquity for national pride. So when the sponge divers returned with a bronze arm, the authorities in Athens were very interested.

The Ministry of Culture immediately ordered the captain and his crew to dig up treasures at the bottom of the sea at Antikythera.

De volgende tien maanden werd het ene na het andere waardevolle standbeeld uit het water gehaald. En toen ze bijna niets meer konden vinden haalden ze een vormeloze klomp metaal ter grootte van een schoenendoos naar boven. 

Terwijl onderzoekers zich op de beelden stortten, werd de klomp in een kist in de tuin van het nationaal archeologisch museum gelegd.

The stopper hides the gears

Months later, a museum employee serendipitously discovered that the now-dried block had stains. He carefully scraped off the outer layer of chalk and sawed out some zigzag patterns.

On one side was a gear with about 200 small teeth. On the side was a somewhat smaller second molar.

The scientists examined the parts and concluded that it must be an old-fashioned eating device. But other than that they had no idea how the thing worked.

Pericles Rediadis first attempted to interpret the signs in 1910. He specialized in ancient coins in the treatises and thought they indicated that the object was a tool for measuring the position of the stars. It will be the navigation component.

The strange nugget also began to attract international attention, and German Albert Rehm was next to solve the puzzle.

He found the word ‘panchem’, the name of a month in ancient Greece, so the gears must be the remains of a tool indicating the position of the planets in a year, he believes.

Riadis protested vehemently, and the two researchers sparred while other scientists occasionally came up with new theories.

In 1953, British physicist and historian of science Derek de Sola Price was allowed to examine the object. He was sure that the solution lay in the number of gear teeth and their location relative to each other. According to him, the mechanism inside the stopper was much more than a measuring device.

He wrote in 1957 that the mechanism “was so amazing that one can compare it with finding parts of an internal combustion engine when opening the tomb of Tutankhamun”.

Discover how it works

Price knew that the ancient Greeks knew gears and calculators. For example, the astronomer and inventor Archimedes worked already in the third century BC. with gears, but his creation had one or two computational functions.

The Antikythera mechanism, as the metal box is now called, looked more advanced. However, the British physicist could not prove his theory just by looking at the outside of the mechanism.

In 1971, Price and a Greek physicist took hundreds of X-ray and gamma-ray images of the inside of the mechanism. Obviously, there were a large number of gears to be seen. Using these images, he was able to recreate the Antikythera Mechanism.

Price found that there were at least 30 cogs involved. Therefore, his conclusion should have been that the mechanism was not just a measuring device, as scientists had assumed until then.

He can calculate the location of several celestial bodies on a given date, and much more that Price did not immediately understand.

The ship sank 2,100 years ago

More research has been done after Price, but the mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism have not yet been fully solved. Some parts have been lost underwater – some believe there may have been as many as 72 gears – so all functions will likely never appear.

Current scientists can clarify other parts of the Antikythera puzzle. Examination of the wood of the wreck shows that the ship was built between 100 and 50 BC. sank. This is supported by the discovery of amphora and pottery near the wreck.

Clarification: This is how the Antikythera Mechanism works

Historians also believe they know where the device was made. When the ship sank, the great centers of science at Alexandria and Pergamon fell into disrepair, and the records do not mention the great scientists who could have made such an ingenious mechanism.

Historians therefore suspect that the ship, given the wreck site, came from Rhodes. Famous astronomers such as Hipparchus and Geminus lived in prosperous Rhodes.

One theory is that one of their students may have built the Antikythera Mechanism. A good candidate would be the philosopher Posidonius, whose academy was an important center for astronomy and mechanical engineering.

While historians are still searching for many answers, they do know that the Antikythera Mechanism is a one-of-a-kind engineering feat.

According to some, the machine is so advanced that European engineers were unable to build such machines until the 18th century. This sheds new light on the ancient Greeks.

Their world was broader than philosophy and the fine arts: they were also technical.

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