The Antikythera Mechanism, widely believed to be the world’s first computer, has puzzled scientists for decades.
By Evaggelos Vallianatos
I saw the fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism in 2007. After moving slowly through the large rooms of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens full of beautiful Hellenic statues and other treasures, I found myself staring intensely at thin metal fragments with the ghostly traces of gear wheels and Greek writing.
I left the Museum dazed but determined to learn more. I spent the next ten years exploring the fascinating history of the celestial computer. My mind raced back thousands of years to ancient Greece.
I thought of the superhero Herakles, the gods of science and technology, Metis, the water goddess of intelligence, her daughter, Athena, goddess of arts and crafts, Hephaistos, god of metallurgy and craftsmanship, and his twin sons, the Kabeiroi gods of craftsmanship and metallurgy. I thought of the philosophers of the Cosmos like Anaximander and Pythagoras.
Then Aristotle and Alexander the Great filled my mind. Could the museum fragments I stared for so long be connected to the conversations between Aristotle and his pupil Alexander?
King Philip II of Macedonia had heard of Aristotle from Aristotle’s father, his personal physician. His ally, Hermeias, had been a student of Aristotle. He was the king of the small but strategic polis of Assos near Troy. He, too, spoke to Philip about Aristotle. Hermeias was a Greek patriot who feared the expanding influence of Persia in Hellas. He supported Philip’s plan of preparing Macedonia and his Hellenic allies to invade Persia.
In 342 BC, Philip invited Aristotle to tutor his son. Aristotle taught Alexander from 342 to 336 BC. His emphasis was on philosophy, science, history, politics, and epic poetry, inspiring young Alexander to unify Greece and spread Hellenic culture throughout the world. He edited The Iliad of Homer for Alexander, who carried it with him everywhere. Achilles became his model and hero.
Alexander conquered Persia, but died in 32 BCE, all too young, barely 33 years of age. His generals, especially Ptolemaios, a student of Aristotle, continued Alexander’s political and cultural strategy. Once he became the king of Egypt, he brought to life the Aristotelian idea for the advancement of science and enlightenment. He made Alexandria a polis, built to honor Alexander, the capital of Egypt, and the center of Hellenic science and civilization. The institutions with which he endowed Alexandria, the Mouseion-university and great Library, gave birth to far-reaching and pioneering knowledge about science and the world.
The Antikythera Mechanism, or an almost-destroyed version of the original astronomical computer I observed at the Athens National Archaeological Museum, came into being in the second century BC, most likely on the island of Rhodes.
The trouble with 20th century scientists
Experts spent more than a century studying and accidentally dismembering the extremely fragile remnants of the poorly-named Antikythera Mechanism. Yes, it was a mechanism, what with its interlocking gear trains and pin-and-slot mechanism reproducing the elliptical movement of the Moon around the Earth. One gear sat on top of another, from which a pin entered the slot of the top gear. When the bottom gear rotated at a constant speed, its pin moved back and forth in the slot of the upper gear, moving it faster and slower, thus reproducing the faster and slower elliptical movement of the Moon around the Earth. The Moon moves faster when close to the Earth, and slower when it is further away.
The Antikythera Mechanism, however, was much more than a mere mechanism. It was a sophisticated, mind-bogglingly complex astronomical computer. And Greeks made it. They employed advanced astronomy, mathematics, metallurgy, and engineering to do so, constructing the astronomical device 2,200 years ago. These scientific facts, of the computer’s age and its flowless high tech nature, profoundly disturbed some of the scientists who studied it.
Archimedes was a giant in mathematics, science, and technology. He had written a book, now lost, On Spheres, in which he probably described the making of a mechanical universe. One need only read Galileo to see the esteem Archimedes enjoyed by great Western Renaissance scientists. As for Hipparchos, he invented mathematical astronomy and plane trigonometry. The fingertips of both Hipparchos and Archimedes are on the Antikythera computer.
Nevertheless, a few Western scientists of the twentieth century were shocked by the Antikythera Mechanism. They called it an astrolabe for several decades and refused to call it a computer. The astrolabe, a Greek invention, is a useful instrument for calculating the position of the Sun and other prominent stars. Yet its technology is rudimentary compared to that of the Antikythera device.
Gears from the Greeks
Fortunately, a British physicist and historian of science, Derek de Solla Price, began studying the Mechanism in 1958. In 1959, he wrote an article about “An Ancient Greek Computer” for Scientific American. Price spoke of the high scientific technology of the computer and assured his readers, “Nothing like this is preserved elsewhere.”
He likened the Antikythera Mechanism to the great astronomical cathedral clocks built in Europe during the Renaissance or to a “modern analogue computer.” He saw the device as “the venerable progenitor of all our present plethora of scientific hardware. It is a bit frightening,” Price admitted, “to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology” (“An Ancient Greek Computer,” Scientific American, 200 (6)
Arthur C. Clarke, the world-famous science fiction author, read Price’s article about the Antikythera Mechanism and went to Athens in 1965 to see the ancient device for himself. He had a letter of introduction and support from an admiral. He visited the National Archaeological Museum in Athens three times before the museum staff located the fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism. They were keeping the precious fragments in a cigar box. Clarke was disappointed that the Greeks were so careless with such a great treasure of their ancient achievements.
Far more important than his annoyance with the Greek bureaucracy was Clarke’s reaction to the fragments of the mechanism. Like Price, he fell into deep thoughts. “Looking at this extraordinary relic is a most disturbing experience,” he wrote in his work “The Frontiers of Knowledge.”
“Few activities are more futile than ῾what if …᾽ type of speculation, yet the Antikythera mechanism positively compels such thinking. Though it is over two thousand years old, it represents a level (of achievement), which our technology did not reach until the eighteenth century…. If the insight of the Greeks had matched their ingenuity, the industrial revolution might have begun a thousand years before Columbus.
“By this time (1975) we would not merely be pottering around the moon; we would have reached the nearest stars.”
True, but not because the Greeks “missed the breakthrough into experimental science.” The Greeks employed experimental science in stitching the Antikythera computer together.
Price studied the Antikythera computer for about 16 years. In 1974, he published his ground-breaking assessment under the revealing title of “Gears from the Greeks.” He confirmed that the Antikythera Mechanism was the only artifact from the ancient world with gears. He was convinced that the Antikythera Mechanism mirrored scientific technology and urged us to rewrite Greek history and the history of science on the basis of this wondrous predictive astronomical computer.
Price is right. But for me, the dream goes much further. Had Alexander the Great or his successors put Rome out of imperial business in the late fourth century BC, the world would have been vastly different than it is in the third decade of the twenty-first century.
The Antikythera computer was never alone in coming into being. It was part and parcel of a wider plan of improving civilization itself. Greek philosophers added to the cosmic elements of cold, hot, dry, and wet, the concepts of equality and justice as governing virtues in the Cosmos.
That vision also made the Antikythera computer. Its front plate was a Cosmos of the Sun god Helios, his sister, Selene, the Moon, phases of the Moon, the planets and major stars and constellations. This Cosmos was embraced by the inside circle of the Zodiac with its 12 constellations and an outside circle of the 365-day year.
This genius computer was a pipeline between the gods and Greeks. It predicted the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. It connected the Cosmos and natural phenomena to the Olympics and other Panhellenic celebrations of the gods and athletic and cultural competition and excellence.
With Greeks free to continue their science and civilization dream, in all likelihood the Antikythera device would have triggered an industrial age of advanced technologies. There would have been no Dark Ages.
The crusading wars between Christianity and Islam disrupted Islam’s building its culture on the model of Hellenic thought. The religious wars also delayed the Renaissance in the West.
The Hellenic paradigm
Certainly, I am not saying the Greeks, even those responsible for the science and institutions that made possible the enlightenment that brought about the Antikythera computer, were perfect. Far from it.
But I do say that, with all of their human faults, they had a better idea for themselves and humanity. That idea was science and technology serving the public good and connecting human beings to the Cosmos. We can learn from their experience and the genius embedded in the Antikythera computer.
Modern Greeks especially ought to consider the Antikythera computer as a turning point in their vision of the future. Let it be a paradigm for the reinvention of a modern-era Antikythera computer of genius.
Evaggelos Vallianatos studied zoology and history at the University of Illinois. He earned a doctorate in Greek history at the University of Wisconsin and did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked in the Office of Technology Assessment on Capitol Hill, and at the US Environmental Protection Agency. He is the author of hundreds of articles and seven books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise (Universal Publishers, 2021).