Antikythera Mechanism

Ask anyone what comes to mind when pondering ancient Greece; I guarantee they won’t say analog computer. We harbor vague ideas about ancient cultures. For most, it’s what we learned in school, dusty textbooks our only inspiration School children grind pencil crayons to stubs coloring depictions of the Sphinx, Roman Coliseum or Greek Gods for title pages of social studies reports. Neat little packages of safe assumption are recycled from generation to generation. Textbooks ignore dusty corners that defy explanation. Homogenized ancient history timelines never stray from middle of the road safety. No questions please, sense of wonder not required.

Thankfully I didn’t buy it. I always knew dark, dusty corners had stories to tell. Every time I look at them, astonishment feeds my sense of wonder, it makes me giddy knowing past civilizations kicked ass in ways we may never understand.

At the beginning of the 20th century sponge divers off Antikythera island found a bronze device along side cargo from an ancient shipwreck.No bigger than a laptop it’s stumped historians for well over 100 years. Known as the Antikythera Mechanism, it is referred to as the world’s first computer.

The mechanism resides at the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens. British archaeologist Derek Price voiced a theory in 1959 that it was a device to calculate astronomical events. In 1974 Price built a model, attempting to show how entering past, present, and future dates could predict everything from solar and lunar eclipses to moon phases and position of the planets. Modern x-ray imaging reveal at least 30 gears; each one a different size, with different numbers of interlocking notches and pointers. The device has over 2000 characters, most deciphered, but never published. Believed to hail from around 100 BC, it was found with wreckage of a massive Roman ship, but is considered Greek – most likely the spoil of war.

It’s hard to verbalize how satisfying it is each time I learn of an ancient head scratcher. The reason doesn’t really matter to me, for as long as I can remember I’ve believed history was not as it seems. I smile every time we have more questions than answers.  Ponder a 2000 year old machine that after 100 years we still don’t fully understand. Enter it on the list of other things we didn’t learn at school;  Derinkuyu, Catalhoyuk, Gobekli Tepe, Puma Punku, and Nabta Playa – you all shatter dusty timelines or elude explanation, and no one has even heard of you. We’ve all heard of ancient Greece, I won’t hold my breath but hope that might be enough to start looking at things differently. The Antikythera Mechanism doesn’t shatter timelines, all the same I’d love to hear my seventh grade teacher explain it to the class.

2 thoughts on “Antikythera Mechanism

  1. Could you just imagine where we’d be today if Rome hadn’t shone so bright and the Greeks had maintained a leading role in the growth of human society. A meeting of minds with the ancient Chinese and…..

  2. We’re always learning about history. The evidence today, for instance, points to agriculture being developed by the Gravettian culture approximately 30,000 years ago – but then killed when the ice ages revived into the ‘Younger Dryas’. By the end of that time, late neolithic people were living in small villages supported by hunter-gathering, and it was not a big step from that to places such as Gobekili Tepe. All these discoveries are very exciting, to me underscoring the richness of history – and also the fact that our ancestors were just as smart as we are.

    The Antikythera computer is a cool piece of Greek geekery – well within range of what the Greeks knew and doubtless something we’ll sort out in due course. I have heard it was something to do with fortune telling. Apropos John’s comment above – I think we ARE a product of that Greek learning, and so was the Roman world, into which it fused. Starting with democracy. It’s all good.

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