Random luck saved world’s oldest computer

The Antikithera Mechanism (c. 160 BCE)

By Terry Poulos, Scientiquity founder

(Editor’s note: This blog was first posted on October 14, 2019)

Sometimes, history only survives out of sheer luck. For instance, the ancient Antikythera Mechanism, most cited as the world’s oldest computer and almost universally thought to be the world’s most mysterious human-crafted, extant ancient artifact. This marvel of Greek invention sank in a ship in or around 50-60 BCE and wasn’t seen again until a small crew of daring Greek sponge divers stumbled across the wreck in 1900 CE. Two millennia had passed!

The ship, a Roman-era vessel, by the hands of fate or random fortune, managed to settle on a 50-meter deep shelf off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, located due north of the island of Crete and due south of mainland Greece. The shelf was precariously perched a few short meters from an abyss. Had winds from an ancient storm carried it any farther, it would have been lost for all eternity. We’d still be in the dark about the true capabilities of the ancients. But it was not lost. Ergo, the history books must eventually be re-written.

This month, divers returned to the shipwreck to re-survey the site and excavate a few select items. It already qualifies as one of the richest hauls of Bronze-age artifacts ever discovered in a shipwreck. The late, great marine historian and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau documented the wreck in the 1950’s and again in the 1970’s. The mechanism itself has been the subject of numerous books as well as a BBC film documentary

Scientiquity was the first to commemorate it in sculpture and on a numismatic, called “Net Zero Coin” (NZC). Our ART-ikythera sculpture was exhibited at the National Hellenic Museum (NHM) in 2016, as was NZC, now in the permanent collection of the NHM, the British Museum, the American Numismatic Society, and the American Numismatic Association. As you might gather, Scientiquity is near-obsessed with all-things-Antikythera!

antikythera mechanism, technology, computer, archimedes, astronomy, classical greece, sculpture, art, art-ikythera, scientiquity, terry poulos
“ART-ikythera” by Scientiquity, modern-day rendition of the ancient Antikythera Mechanism

The functions of the mechanism have been definitively confirmed by mathematicians, astronomers, technicians, archaeologists and other experts. It had a minimum of 40 gears and served as an astronomical calculator which could predict solar and lunar eclipses (and more) decades in advance, and track the motions of the five planets known to the era, in addition to tracking galactic constellations.

The device was estimated to have been built around 160 BCE, although evidence exists indicating its invention may have preceded that by another 100 years or more. The legendary Archimedes of Syracuse, considered the greatest scientist/polymath inventor of antiquity, is most speculated to have been its inventor, albeit whoever made it worked in conjunction with a workshop of other astronomers, mathematicians, metallurgists and artisans.

net zero coin, antikythera mechanism, ancient, technology, coin, numismatic, medal, collectible, scientiquity, terry poulos
“Net Zero Coin” by Terry Poulos (Scientiquity), the world’s first coin commemorating the Antikythera Mechanism. The numismatic is in the permanent collection of four museums: British Museum, National Hellenic Museum, American Numismatic Association, American Numismatic Society

You protest: But Terry, they didn’t even have indoor plumbing at the time. True. They did not – in 160 BC. However, there absolutely were fresh and waste water pipe systems in ancient Minoa (c. 2500-1500 BCE) at the city of Knossos that was buried in ash and preserved similar to Pompei. Knossos is now modern-day Crete, coincidentally a stone’s throw away from Anikythera. 

Innovation and knowledge ebb and flow. For proof, all we need do is cite the 1500 years after the Antikythera Mechanism where technology regressed. There is no linear trajectory of advancement. It’s apparent that we go two steps forward, one step back, then forward again. The modern equivalent in complexity to the Antikythera Mechanism didn’t arrive until the Renaissance with the arrival of European clockwork.

The Antikythera Mechanism is an outlier, a unicorn. Something that quite simply should not be. And yet, there it is, residing today at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Perhaps we’ll find more of these ancient marvels. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 2000 years.

Terry Poulos is a Chicago-area writer, archaeological historian, artist and geometer whose investigations focus primarily on physics, fractal topology, and Number Theory 

Scientiquity. All images and concepts herein © 2022

Published by Scientiquity

Polymath artist, scientific inquirer, fractal math researcher, archaeological historian, entrepreneur

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