A World Wonder of Scientific Ingenuity and Technological Breakthrough
By Dr. Demetrios Giannaros
The discovery in 1900 of an ancient cargo shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythira by sponge diver Elias Stadiatis, followed by a careful archaeological underwater dig the year after, brought to light one of the ancient world’s technological wonders that still amazes scientists today…. the discovery of the Antikythira “first world-known computer” Mechanism. What initially seemed to be part of a rock turned out to be one of the most amazing and shocking scientific discoveries illuminating the unbelievable ingenuity of ancient Greek scientists and mathematicians. The device predicted and timed astrological events, among other calculations.
Dr. Josephine Marchant wrote a book on the Antikythira Mechanism called, Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World’s First Computer. During a lecture on the mechanism at Cambridge University on February 6, 2020, she called it a complex mathematical machine that has mystified scholars. She said that nothing has been found before with such complexity and sophistication.
The Greek sponge diver’s discovery, as it turned out, was the first sophisticated computer-type device with many metal gears that was used by the ancient Greeks to determine, decades in advance, astronomical events and their timing such as solar or lunar eclipses and the motions of stars and planets. “The device was designed well enough to fairly accurately reproduce the motion of the Sun and Moon” (Jennifer Ouelette, in an Ars Technica article). The author calls it “the first known analog computer”, dating back to as early as 150-100 BC In another study, archaeologists Christian Carman and James Evans pinpointed the device’s development even earlier to 205 BC Imagine!!
Currently, scientists estimate that the Antikythira ‘computer’ Mechanism had 37 synchronized gears of many different sizes enabling it to calculate astronomical phenomena years in advance. The complexity of the mechanism shows that ancient Greeks understood that the movements of the sun, moon, and planets were part of a sophisticated, orderly universe. This metal device is a scientific marvel that scientists claim was not reproduced again until medieval times when similar gears were used for cathedral clocks in the 14th century. The device’s development is the equivalent of a modern-day complex scientific and technological revolution.
In my profession of economics, we always talk about how economic growth can be improved by increases in quality and quantity of labor, capital investments in machinery, factories, the discovery of new natural resources, and advancement of technical know-how through inventions, innovations, and scientific breakthroughs. We all know the impact of inventions and innovations such as the internet, automobile, airplane, cell phone, and space satellites (just to name a few) on our standard of living and quality of life. Imagine the value that this Antikythira ‘computer’ Mechanism had on ancient Greek life with this scientific development that could predict astronomical events, and possibly weather patterns, for a society predominantly dependent on agriculture, fishing, and shipping among the thousands of Greek Islands and beyond. If ancient scientists used the device to predict these phenomena relatively accurately, this technological advancement would have had a significantly positive impact on the quality and way of life of an agrarian, sea-faring, and trading society. This would be true not only for ancient Greeks but also for the whole of the ancient world, as information and technology spread throughout the then known world via trade and travel, much as it happens today.
We cannot fully know yet how this first known “analog type of computer” developed by ancient Greeks may have been used by others to develop new more advanced computer-like mechanisms later. Presumably, the Antikythira Mechanism knowledge must have survived somehow, somewhere (although the evidence is limited at this point) that may have allowed the sophisticated gear mechanism to be used in other technologies such as the medieval cathedral clocks many centuries later.
Dr. Tony Freeth presented a lecture at the Department of Classics and Humanities at Stanford University (available on YOUTUBE) titled, “The Antikythira Mechanism: A Shocking Discovery from Ancient Greece; First Known World Computer” in which he analyzed the details of the Antikythira Mechanism. The title reveals his excitement and amazement at the capabilities of the ancient Greek scientists and the value of such a discovery. Even in today’s more advanced world, this scientific accomplishment is astonishing, given the tools and knowledge available to the ancient Greeks.
This photo from the Science Photo Library, on the left, depicts the original Antikythira ‘computer’ Mechanism (which can be seen at the Hellenic National Archaeological Museum in Athens) and to the right the device’s recent reproduction. It shows how this ‘computer’ mechanism may have been structured and operated more than two thousand years ago.
The photo above gives us an appreciation of the marvel that was the ancient world of Greek science, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. The Antikythira ‘computer’ Mechanism is just one example of the incredible ingenuity of our Greek ancestors.
Dr. Demetrios Giannaros, Ph.D., a former professor of economics, for over 35 years at Boston University, Suffolk University, and the University of Hartford. He also served as the Chair of the Energy and Technology Committee at the Connecticut Legislature during his service, for sixteen years, as State Representative and Deputy Speaker of the CT House of Representatives. Dr. Giannaros has been serving on the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Invention Convention (CIC) for fourteen years, four of which as President and Vice President. Typically, over 15,000 students participate annually in developing inventions and competing in CIC invention programs.