Recovered from a 1st-century Roman shipwreck in 1901, the Antikythera Mechanism is the world’s oldest known analog computer, at an estimated 2,200 years old. While the device’s mechanism has long since been known to have involved astronomical calculations, its full nature has been shrouded in mystery, with the mechanism’s approximately 30 bronze gears having corroded into a single lump over the millennia that it lay on the seafloor. However, new examinations by a multi-national research team have deciphered nearly all of the surviving text that had been inscribed on the device by its builder from ancient Greece.
This new study began 12 years ago, using state-of-the-art scanning technology, to uncover nearly all of the 3,500 Greek characters inscribed on the surviving fragments of the device. What they found were descriptions explaining what the readings on the device’s dials meant, depicting the mechanical movement of the Sun and Moon against the constellations of the Zodiac. It also mapped out future eclipses, lunar phases, and the positions of the planets.
"It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos," explains Alexander Jones, research team member and ancient science historical professor with New York University. "It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment."
"I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device."
A new expedition is currently underway to re-examine the original shipwreck, to see if more fragments from the mechanism can be recovered. The research team is hopeful that more pieces will resurface, as they estimate that they only have one-quarter of the device’s parts to study. Given the Antikythera Mechanism’s sophistication — clockwork machines like it would not be seen again for more than another 1,300 years — it is hypothesized that its design was the product of the development of earlier devices of a similar nature.
"Perhaps, at some point, our reading may be fleshed out by sections retrieved from the sea," muses team member Yanis Bitsakis.