George Lucas Educational Foundation

Mediterranean Mystery Solved: An Ancient Artifact Counts

Modern technology cracks the code of "the world's first computer."
Owen Edwards
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Credit: NASA

Just over a century ago, sponge divers working the waters near Antikythera, a Greek island between the mainland and Crete, discovered the wreck of an ancient ship. Now, anyone who has ever gone snorkeling in Greece knows it's not unusual to swim over bits and pieces of the past, usually broken wine and grain pots that once lay in the holds of sunken sailing ships devoured by worms long ago.

But what the sponge divers found was anything but usual: the pieces of a device of sorts, consisting of thirty bronze gears and dozens of smaller parts and fragments encrusted with rust and corrosion. What has become known as the Antikythera Mechanism was a mystery even to the curators who put it on display in the archaeological museum in Athens.

It has been studied over the years since its discovery, and at various times scientists and archaeologists have attempted to replicate the device. But since 2001, a group of European scientists called the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project has utilized state-of-the-art technology both to decide definitively the purpose of the device and to build an accurate replica. This reproduction is a key feature of a newly launched exhibition called Gods, Myths, and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece at New York City's Children's Museum of Manhattan.

"The mechanism is displayed in a Plexiglas case," says Eleni Daniels, a consultant for the museum. "Along with the device, there is software to let kids study one fragment of the machine. Kids don't study the classics anymore, and we want them to realize how intelligent the ancient Greeks were and how advanced their science was." The museum plans to develop an interactive Web site within the next few months so students can study the mechanism without traveling to New York.

The projects core team of specialists -- astronomers Xenophon Moussas, Mike Edmunds, and John Seiradakis, mathematician Tony Freeth, physicist Yannis Bitsakis, and paleographer Agamemnon Tselikas -- used technologies developed by Hewlett-Packard Labs and X-Tek Group, based in the United Kingdom, to uncover and decipher inscriptions etched into the brass of fragments of the mechanism, raising to a new level radiographic research that began in the 1960s. While HP supplied software, X-Tek shipped to Athens an 8-ton X-ray machine developed for safety inspections of jet turbines. This device, nicknamed Bladerunner, produced three-dimensional images of what lay beneath 2,000 years of corrosion.

The inscription turned out to be a kind of user's manual, enabling the team to determine that the thirty hand-cut bronze gears and dials (originally housed in a wooden frame) formed an analog computer most likely used to plot the orbits of the planets, predict eclipses, and affix the date for the quadrennial Olympic games. The inscriptions include the names of the planets and the signs of the zodiac, plus the word Ispania, the oldest known text reference to Spain. Based on the form of the Greek letters on the device, Moussas estimated it was constructed during the first half of the first century BC, making it what is now thought of as the earliest known computer.

Moussas, who grew up in Athens not far from the archaeological museum and saw the device as a child, considers it more complex than anything created for at least the next thousand years. Though the mechanism was found on the sea floor, it was not used for navigation. Instead, some scientists think the ship on which it was carried may have sunk while carrying the remarkable machine to Rome.

The Antikythera Mechanism is a dramatic indication that if the subsequent fall of the Roman Empire had not led to the Dark Ages, technology and science in the Western world might have progressed far faster than they did. Just imagine what Copernicus might have done if hed had an iteration of the Antikythera Mechanism in his candlelit study. "Dr. Moussas and his team are giving the children of New York a priceless scientific and educational gift," says Andrew Ackerman, executive director of the Children's Museum.

After an eighteen-month sojourn there, the device's reproduction, as part of the Gods, Myths, and Mortals exhibition, will begin a four-year tour of several other major American cities.

Owen Edwards is a contributing editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian magazines.

Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conrad's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Imagine what wonders we would have discoverd if the library at Alexandrea had not been burned to the ground!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach English and History and will definitely pass this on to my colleagues. Thanks for keeping us informed about such wondrous things!

Suling's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

or Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Lydia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fascinating! I will be telling my history students in 6th grade about this wonderous artifact. Please send more information regarding the traveling exhibit.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What? That statement has no place here.

Eleni's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

More information about the above-mentioned traveling exhibition including the new reconstruction model of the Antikythera Mechanism, which is on display, is available at The exhibition at the Children's Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) runs through December 2008. I encourage you to come and visit. The more you learn about ancient Greece, the more you see it all around you!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a public school teacher and a veteran I take issue with your subtle anti-US implication.

Trina Colon's picture

It depicts an astronaut ("Eagleman") on Earth (the planet marked by the seven dots, accompanied by the crescent of the Moon) and an astronaut on Mars (the six-pointed star symbol) -- the latter depicted as one from the "Fishmen" class of astronauts, best trading system those equipped to splashdown in waters. Between the two planets an object is depicted, that could only be a spacecraft, with extended panels and antennas.

Ryu81's picture

This is certainly an excellent resource for me, thanks for sharing, I have bookmarked the page for future reference.:) Ryu @ NOWIN

Eugenia Berdali's picture

"The Antikythera Mechanism is a dramatic indication that if the subsequent fall of the Roman Empire had not led to the Dark Ages". Why is the Roman empire involved nobody knows. The truw sentence is ,"The Antikythera Mechanism is a dramatic indication that if the GREEKS had not been run down by all these hoards of invaders, Romans, crazy hysterical Christian mobs with their superstitions up their tails and all other beasts and barbarians technology and science in the Western world might have progressed far faster than they did.". Check what Sir A Clark says exactly about this situation! The Roman Empire! Yeah right! Everything starts and ends with Rome and Latin! WOW

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