What is the Antikythera mechanism and why is it so important today?

17 May 2017

The polished and cleaned Antikythera mechanism. Image: imagIN.gr photography/Shutterstock

Shipwrecks have long been sought after for the potential of hidden treasure, but none have been able to compare with the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism.

Today’s (17 May) Google Doodle marks the day that archaeologist Valerios Stais found that a peculiar lump of rock and metal – discovered by a group of sponge divers off the coast of Greece in 1902 – hid a fascinating history.

This day 115 years ago, Stais noticed that within the rock was a gear wheel, which suggested it was not only far more important than the original divers had realised, but may also be one of the most important finds in the history of computer science.

Hidden properties

The Antikythera mechanism – as it came to be known – was actually a 2,000-year-old analogue computer, and not a simple astronomical clock as Stais had once thought.

It was only through extensive research and x-ray analysis of the object that it was found to also be capable of carrying out basic math as well as charting everything in the heavens above, and acting as a lunar calendar, detecting the movement of the sun and moon.

In terms of design, the ancient computer was a sophisticated and intricate arrangement of 30 bronze gears housed in another case made out of more bronze and wood.

Despite this sounding basic to our own 21st-century minds, the device was more advanced than anything that would follow it for the next 1,000 years.

One of the biggest questions that needed to be solved, however, was who exactly built such a device?

Google Doodle

Image: Google

No, it is not a time machine

Rather than some advanced time travelling machine that some of the more fringe elements out there would suggest, the device is believed to have been built between 150BCE and 85BCE on the island of Rhodes.

Adding further evidence to these claims is that literature from around the same time makes a number of references to devices just like the one found in the shipwreck.

As a centre of trade and culture at that time, it is believed that more than one Antikythera mechanism would have been built and that the faded inscriptions of two people’s names on the device were the people that built them.

What makes this discovery so important for both archaeology and computer science is that our understanding of ancient people and cultures is not always what it seems.

“Historians continue to ponder the Antikythera mechanism’s purpose and inner workings, and visitors to the National Archaeological Museum of Greece marvel at its delicate complexity,” Google said.

“Today’s Doodle illustrates how a rusty remnant can open up a sky full of knowledge and inspiration.”

The polished and cleaned Antikythera mechanism. Image: imagIN.gr photography/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic