The Ancient Antikythera Mechanism: The Earliest Computer In Human History?

Sometimes, among archeological findings, there are objects which rewrite our old views of the history of human evolution. A clear example of the high level of ancient knowledge is the Antikythera mechanism.

In 1900, a Greek ship searching for sea sponges in the Mediterranean Sea ran into a terrible storm north of the island of Crete. Captain Dimitrios Kondos decided to take shelter from the storm near the island of Antikythera.

When the sea calmed, he sent a group of divers to look for sea sponges in the region. One of them, Likopantis, informed him that he had seen a sunken ship at the bottom of the sea and around it was a large number of horse remains. The captain thought that the diver was hallucinating from carbon dioxide poisoning and decided to check out the situation himself.

Diving 43 meters deep into the sea, he saw a fascinating scene. Before him were the remains of an ancient ship around which were scattered bronze and marble statues, barely visible from the thick layer of silt, covered with sponges, seaweed, crabs, and other sea creatures. The captain decided that this ancient Roman galley could have carted something a lot more valuable than bronze finds. He then sent his divers to explore the ship. The result exceeded all expectations. The treasure trove turned out to be very abundant – gold coins, precious stones, jewels, and many other objects.

The sailors gathered everything they could but many of the things remained on the bottom of the sea. The reason is that it’s too dangerous diving to such a depth without special equipment. During the extraction of the objects, one diver passed away and two others paid the price with their health. The discovered artifacts were then given to the National Archeology Museum in Athens.

The discovery caused huge interest among Greek authorities. While studying the objects, scientists established that the ship had sunken in the 1st century BC, during a passage from Rhodes to Rome. Several expeditions were sent to the site of the shipwreck. In a matter of 2 years, Greek archaeologists removed virtually everything from the galley.

Under a Layer of Limestone

On May 17, 1902, archeologist Valerios Stais, who was working on the analysis of the discovered artifacts, took a bronze piece covered with limestone and shells. The lump suddenly broke apart, since the bronze has greatly suffered from corrosion, and in it, the archaeologist saw gears. Stais suggested that those were fragments from an ancient watch, and he even wrote a scientific paper on the topic.

But his colleagues did not like his work. Stais even got blamed for cheating. Skeptics claimed that no such complex mechanism could have existed in the ancient world. A conclusion was made that this object landed at the place of the shipwreck much later and it bears no connection to the sunken ship. Stais is forced to step back under the pressure of public opinion and the mysterious object was forgotten for a long time.

In 1951, historian Derek J. de Solla Price from Yale University unexpectedly came across the Antikythera mechanism. He devoted more than 20 years of his life to studying the artifact. Dr. Price understood that he was working with an unprecedented find.

“Nowhere in the world has such an object been preserved,” he explained. “Everything we know of the technology in the Hellenistic period contradicts the existence of such a complex technical mechanism at that time. The discovery of such an object can be compared with something like finding a jet aircraft in the tomb of Tutankhamen.”

Derek Price published the results from his studies in 1974 in Scientific American. According to him, this artifact was a part of a complex mechanism, consisting of 31 large and small gears (20 have been preserved). It served to determine the positions of the Sun and Moon.

London Science Museum curator, Michael Wright, took over the work of Price in 2002. He used computer tomography to study the mechanism, which allowed him to attain a more accurate idea of the structure. Wright discovered that the Antikythera mechanism, besides the Sun and Moon, also determined the position of the 5 known planets in the ancient world – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Modern-day Studies

The results of the new findings were published in Nature magazine in 2006. With the help of the latest equipment, a 3D model of the object was created. Scientists discovered inscriptions containing the names of the known planets.

Almost 2000 symbols were deciphered. On the basis of the form of the letters, it was confirmed that the Antikythera mechanism was created in the 2nd century BC. The information that was received during the examinations allowed scientists to reconstruct the device.

The mechanism is a wooden box with two little doors. Behind the first, there was a shield that allowed for the observation of the movement of the Sun and Moon with the zodiac signs as a background. The second door was at the back of the device. There were two shields behind it, one of which served for the interaction between the Sun and Moon calendars and the second one was used for predicting the Solar and Lunar eclipses.

There had to have a wheel on the further part of the mechanism (they were missing), responsible for the movement of the other planets, which can be determined by the inscriptions on the object.

So, this was a sort of an ancient analog computer. Its users could enter their choice of date and the device, with absolute accuracy, could show the positions of the Sun, Moon, and the 5 planets known to the popular ancient Greek astronomers.

What kind of genius could have created such a marvel of technology in ancient times? In the beginning, there was a hypothesis that the creator of the Antikythera mechanism was the great Archimedes, a man who was truly ahead of his time as if he had appeared from the distant future.

In Roman history, there are notes on how he astonished everyone, demonstrating a “sky globe”, showing the movement of the planets, the Sun, and Moon and also predicting Sun eclipses and lunar phases. But the Antikythera mechanism was created after the death of Archimedes. Although, it is not entirely out of the question that this great mathematician and engineer had created the prototype, upon which the first-ever analog computer of the world was created.


Today, the island of Rhodes is considered to be the place where the mechanism was created. From this exact place, sailed the ship that crashed near Antikythera. At those times, Rhodes was the center of Greek astronomy and mechanics. And the creator of this marvel of technology is believed to be Poseidonius of Alameya, who, judging by the words of Cicero, was responsible for the creation of the device, showing the movement of the Sun, Moon, and other planets.

It is not out of the question that Greek sailors might have had several dozen such mechanisms, but only one has reached us.

And still, it remains a mystery as to how ancient people were able to create such a device. And how did they have such deep knowledge, especially in the area of astronomy?

Jacques Cousteau, a great explorer of the depths of our civilization, called this marvel a treasure, which in value, exceeds the Mona Lisa.

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