What is very clear is that this complicated machine, with dozens of tiny moving parts, was not only a master-class in engineering ability, but also the absolute state of the art in astronomy at that time.
Computers, in one form or another, are nothing new, but one of the earliest was surely the mysterious Antikythera Mechanism. This strange device has been a source of intrigue and amazement since the being discovered by Valerios Stais in 1902.
He found he odd fragment in the wreck of a Roman merchant ship – sunk off the coast of Antikythera between 85 – 60BC – in 1901, though the wreck had first been discovered by sponge divers a year earlier. It is today believed that the ship was carrying treasure back to Rome.
The difficult recovery operation, subsequent analysis of findings have revealed ground-breaking discoveries, the recovery of the Antikythera mechanism the earliest example of underwater archaeology, perhaps, amazing considering the technological deficits of those days.
In more recent times, the cutting-edge technique of X-ray tomography has been employed to discover as much as possible about this incredible machine and how it worked, though ideas about the original purpose have fluctuated as more facts were unearthed.
It is now known with certainty that this technologically advanced device could open the door to various cyclical astronomical and calendar information – for instance, the positions of both sun and moon, together with those of the five planets the Greeks knew about, as well as the dates when eclipses could occur, and of the Olympic games.
It is thought, because reference is made to similar devices in ancient literature, that this example of an original Antikythera Mechanism was not unique. Archimedes, it is believed, even wrote a paper describing construction, unfortunately lost in time, and though other literary examples of similar devices exist, few clues as to their intended use have been forthcoming.
Small enough to be portable, with doors covering the front and rear dials, the device apparently was inscribed, in the Greek language, with a kind of user manual, so that people other than the original maker could use it. The ancient fascination with calculating astronomical values for astrological purposes – always a time-consuming and inaccurate process – became much easier with the use of the Antikythera Mechanism.
When the scans clearly revealed signs of the Zodiac around the main dial on the big fragment, this did lend more weight to this idea, though it is yet unproven. What is very clear is that this complicated machine, with dozens of tiny moving parts, was not only a master-class in engineering ability, but also the absolute state of the art in astronomy at that time, a complex physical computer that we still marvel at today. How much more there is to be discovered is indeed an intriguing mystery.