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The Antikythera Mechanism: Astro-Time Computer Remembered

A digitalized version of how the Antikythera Mechanism might have looked like. Photo credit: El Pais
The Antikythera Mechanism: Astro-Time Computer Remembered
Denise Recalde

Today the world is celebrating the discovery of one of the world’s oldest known computers – the Antikythera Mechanism — that had lain submerged for more than 2,000 years off the Mediterranean coast of the Greek island the object is named after.

Beneath the weight of the water, the sand, and the wrecked ship that once carried it, the ancient astronomical computer’s bronze gears and mechanical parts slowly warped and rusted.

At the turn of the 20th century, a group of fishermen came across the wreck and discovered the artifact while diving for seafood fare. One of the fishermen swam back to his crewmates clutching a bronze arm — the first find from the Antikythera wreckage to resurface.

Two years later, on today’s date in 1902, amid the coins, sculptures, and pottery, a green-rusted lump of metal caught archaeologist Valerios Stais’ eye. It was a piece of the ancient computer, which became known as the Antikythera Mechanism.

World Puzzled Over Complex Gizmo, the Antikythera Mechanism

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 115-year anniversary of Stais’ discovery.

For the past several decades, scientists have been using X-rays and CT scans to look inside the Antikythera Mechanism and reconstruct what it probably looked like when it was first made, sometime between 200 and 70 BCE.

We now know that the clock-sized device contained an elaborate collection of some 30 interlocking, spinning gears that controlled dials tracking the Sun, the Moon, eclipses, planets, and the schedule for the Olympics. Turning the hand crank jutting from the device’s (likely wooden) frame spun the gears, which moved the hands on the dials — allowing the user to accurately predict eclipses and the passage of celestial bodies through the sky.

“Nothing as sophisticated, or even close, appears again for more than a thousand years,” writes Jo Marchant for the Smithsonian.

The scans also uncovered an inscription, revealed in 2016 to be a kind of explanatory label for the device. It included a discussion of the colors of eclipses — details used at the time in making astrological predictions.

Scientists studying the artifact are uncertain of the device’s purpose, or who used it. The recovery of more fragments from the ancient shipwreck may help them unlock the secrets of the Antikythera Mechanism.

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