On this day in 1902, new light was shed on the ingenuity and advancements of ancient Greek civilisation with the discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient calculating machine. It had lain at the bottom of the Aegean Sea for the best part of 2000 years, having been on board an ill-fated cargo vessel that sank off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera some time in the first century BC.
The wreck of the stricken ship was discovered in 1900 by divers harvesting sponges. It immediately became clear that the find was of great historical importance, and over the next few months most of the remains were raised from the seabed and taken to Greece’s National Museum of Archaeology for analysis. The presence of the Mechanism was not immediately obvious, and it was not until 1902 that it caught the eye of archaeologist Valerios Stais, who was sifting through the salvaged artefacts.
Initial reactions to the Mechanism were not entirely favourable. Such was the evident complexity that it was thought that it could have nothing to do with the other remains, and that its presence among the Antikythera wreckage was dismissed as sheer coincidence. Although Stais believed the Mechanism to be some sort of astronomical clock, serious examination of the Mechanism faltered, and for decades it was largely forgotten.
It surfaced once more in 1951, when the English scientist Derek de Solla Price, a specialist in advanced physics and calculating machinery, decided to make the Mechanism a focus of his research. He gathered together all the pieces of the Mechanism that had been salvaged, and painstakingly reconstructed as much of the machine as was possible. His work confirmed the suspicions of Stais fifty years before him: the complex bronze construction of dials, gears, and cogs was a mathematical instrument that could calculate and plot lunar cycles and planetary movement. In essence, the foot-high structure was a highly sophisticated ancient computer.
The complexity of the Mechanism astounded the researchers. Analyses of samples of the rock and debris that encased the Mechanism when it was found showed that there could be no mistake, the Mechanism was as old as the other findings and probably dated to the 2nd century BC. Nothing of such intricacy dating from this period had ever been discovered before. It demonstrated a level of technical ability that was not thought to have existed at this time, and would not be seen again until the clock makers of western Europe emerged a thousand years later. It forced scientists and historians to re-evaluate their ideas about the ancient Greek levels of technical advancement.
Research into the Mechanism continues to this day at the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, and fragments of the Mechanism can be viewed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. An impressive collection of working models of the Mechanism is also on display.
Credit: © Ancient Art & Architecture Collection Ltd / Alamy
Caption: The mysterious Antikythera Mechanism was eventually revealed to be a sophisticated ancient computer.