This corroded bronze lump is one of the most amazing archeological finds ever made. It is the remains of a small mechanism that was constructed 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece and that can predict the future.
In 1901, some sponge divers appeared on a shipwreck that contained the largest treasure find ever from Ancient Greece. They found invaluable bronze sculptures and a multitude of relics around the ship, but there was also one of the most puzzling and intricate objects from the ancient world – no bigger than a laptop.
– If you had not found it then, there is no chance that someone would have thought that it could exist. It’s just too complicated, says mathematician Tony Freeth.
The antikythera mechanism
– This mechanism would be astonishing even if it had been less cunning than it is, says Alexander Jones, professor of ancient history.
The Antikythera mechanism was on board an overloaded Roman galley that sank off the Greek island of Antikythera 2,000 years ago.
The construction has broken down and what remains are some rusty bronze lumps. But in them, researchers have discovered a mechanism with a number of small gears that has struck the historians of science with astonishment.
The world’s first computer
– A researcher in Ancient Greece had invented a remarkable mechanism. He had come up with a way to use gears in bronze to map the moon’s complex movements, and probably all the planets’ orbits as well. It was an invention of a real genius, says Tony Freeth.
Much later, the Antikythera mechanism would be called the world’s first analog computer.
Various researchers had previously studied the mechanism and tried to understand it but never fully succeeded. Now they tried a new technology. To be able to examine the fragile remains from antiquity and see what it looked like inside, a special X-ray machine was built.
Looked into a new world
Various fragments of the Antikythera mechanism had to spin around on a disc in the machine while it took thousands of X-rays. A computer then assembled the images into a digital 3D image of the mechanism.
– It was absolutely fantastic to see the first picture. It was like a whole new world opening up to us. I decided to make a digital model of the Antikythera mechanism try to better understand how it worked, says Tony Freeth.
A surprising discovery
It is remarkable how much can fit in such a small mechanism. All gears are in stock so close that they should almost break each other. The researchers could see 27 different gears, but probably there had previously been 50 or 60 gears in the entire mechanism.
With the help of this mechanism, one could look into the future and predict solar and lunar eclipses. The gear of the mechanism was, so to speak, the “program” of the computer.
Could make accurate calculations
Scientists had discovered such a sophisticated mechanism that it was called the world’s first computer. It could not only predict solar eclipses decades in advance and what time of day or night they would occur but also in what direction the shadow would fall and what color the eclipse of the sun or moon would take.
– This throws up all our ideas about what the ancient Greeks were capable of. It writes about the history of technology and tells us that things happened in Ancient Greece that we had no idea about, says Tony Freeth.
– For the ancient Greeks, eclipses had a special meaning. For example, during a solar eclipse, astronomers were able to capture the sun, moon, and earth in a perfectly straight line, which helped them measure distances between celestial bodies, says Alexander Jones.
Scientists believe that the original inventor of the Antikythera mechanism must be Archimedes – although the mechanisms he created were probably larger. The one found on the seabed a hundred years ago was small, light and mobile. The ancient Greeks had thus managed to squeeze almost all their knowledge of astronomy into a small box. In a way a bit like today’s laptop.
With the Antikythera mechanism, Greek scientists were able to show a calendar that followed the moon 2,000 years ago and predicted solar eclipses. And just be on the back of the box.
On the front, they could show the universe as they perceived it. With the then five known planets, the sun and the moon, and their complicated movements across the firmament.
– We know that this society was the birthplace of the modern art, architecture, and culture we see today. Now we also know that Ancient Greece was the cradle of today’s advanced technology, says Tony Freeth.