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The Antikythera Mechanism: An Ancient Greek Computer

The Antikythera Mechanism: An Ancient Greek Computer

A piece of the Antikythera Mechanism. Source: Brett Seymour, WHOI

120 years ago, off the coast of Antikythera island, divers discovered the wreck of a 1st century BCE ship. Many amazing treasures from ancient Greece were pulled from this find: statues of bronze and marble, jewelry, coins, and pottery, but one strange item stood out from the rest. A lump of bronze and wood, not much bigger than a book, that had corroded away over the centuries. It wasn't until a year later, in 1902, that any interest was taken in the device when it was discovered that it contained gear pieces within.

The gears were thought anachronistic to the device, estimated to have been constructed in the 2nd century BCE. Archaeologists were puzzled over the machine until they realized it's purpose. The Antikythera Mechanism was a cosmological clock designed to track the movement of the stars.

Research has continued until this day, with new tools bringing new information. More recently, the device was analyzed with x-ray technology, helping to discover the internal workings as well as the remains of script on the wheels. These fragments of text have been extrapolated into a kind of user manual; a handbook for an ancient computer. It seems this might have been the first ancestor to device you're reading on right now! You can check out this amazing video from the BBC to learn more about the Antikythera Mechanism and if you're interested in more computer history, take a look at our piece on the Cray 1 Supercomputer!

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