The second century BCE was a time of the golden age of Greek science and civilization centered in the kingdoms of the empire of Alexander the Great, especially in Alexandria, Egypt. However, mainland Greece was facing the aggressive Roman Republic. In 146 BCE, a Roman army wiped out Corinth, Greece becoming a province of Rome.
The victorious Romans did what all empire builders do: loot and rule. Sometime in the first century, a rich Roman citizen or a general filled a giant boat with stolen Greek treasures in Rhodes. The ship headed for Rome, but it sunk in the stormy Ionian and Cretan Sea.
Two thousand years later, in the Spring of 1900, Greek sponge divers discovered the sunken ship loaded with Greek treasures. The accident happened in the waters of Antikythera, a tiny island between Crete and Peloponnesos.
Among statues, ceramic vases, coins, and earnings, there was a metal artifact that the experts of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens did not know what to do with it. Even after they observed triangular teeth and Greek inscriptions on the artifact, they dubbed it Antikythera Mechanism.
Greek and foreign scientists had great difficulty in deciphering the nature of the Antikythera device. They studied it for more than a century. Indeed, the studies continue on the beginnings of the third decade of the twenty-first century.
The reasons for these extensive studies and great international interest in ancient Greek technology are complex, though clear.
Here was a 2,200-year-old astronomical computer that had no precedent in history. It was immaculate and built with toothed interlocking bronze gears, that is, scientific technology. The scientists were shocked. After all, this technology was supposedly a product of modern times.
For several decades no one had a clue who conceived the idea of an astronomical computer, how and where it was built, and why the Greeks needed such a high tech gadget. Not only that, but modern scientists to some degree do not think the Greeks had any technology to speak of, what with their slaves doing most of the work. Conveniently, they ignore that slavery was the backbone of Western industry for centuries.
With a few exceptions, the scientists laboring over the fragments of the Antikythera machine during the twentieth century were confused and incapable of facing the truth. They examined the gears of the computer over and over again. But down deep in their minds something was telling them the Greeks could not have built such advanced technology.
As a result of that metaphysical handicap, experts called the Antikythera Mechanism an astrolabe, a useful astronomical instrument but hardly comparable to the predictive power of the scientific technology of the immaculate computer.
Gears from the Greeks
One of the mid-twentieth century foreign experts that studied the Antikythera Mechanism in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was Derek de Solla Price. This was an unusual scientist and scholar. He was a British physicist and historian of science who taught the history of science at Yale University. He had experience in studying ancient Chinese scientific instruments and clocks. For about 16 years, he immersed himself in the technological complexity and science embedded in the fragments of the Greek device and, in 1974, he published Gears from the Greeks.
• Price’s report opened the way to a more accurate evaluation of the Antikythera computer. Price said that the Antikythera Mechanism was “one of the most important pieces of evidence for the understanding of ancient Greek science and technology.”
• He explained why:
• The complex gearing of the Antikythera Mechanism shows a more precise picture of the level of Greco-Roman “mechanical proficiency” than that coming out of the surviving textual evidence: this “singular artifact,” he said of the Antikythera Mechanism, “the oldest existing relic of scientific technology, and the only complicated mechanical device we have from antiquity quite changes our ideas about the Greeks and makes visible a more continuous historical evolution of one of the most important main lines that lead to our civilization.”
• Yes, science from the Greeks is a straightforward highway to us. It materializes in technology like the one found in the lump of metal with gears. And that device, housed in a wooden case the size of a dictionary or shoe box, after a tortuous path, became Western technological culture.
• Price described the differential gear of the Antikythera Mechanism as the landmark of its high tech nature. This was the gear that enabled the Antikythera Mechanism to show the movements of the Sun and the Moon in “perfect consistency” with the phases of the Moon. “It must surely rank,” Price said of the differential gear, “as one of the greatest basic mechanical inventions of all time.”
• It was this gear from the Greeks, and the clockwork culture that moved it along, that advanced the technology of cotton manufacture in the eighteenth century. Eventually, the differential gear ended up in cars in late nineteenth century.
• Price raised a fundamental issue that probably outraged the Western community of scholars studying ancient Greece. He complained that the West judges the Greeks from scraps of building stones, statues, coins, ceramics, and a few selected written sources. Yet, when it comes to the heart of their lives and culture, how they did their work in agriculture, how they built the perfect Parthenon, what kind of mechanical devices they had for doing things in peace and war, how they used metals, and, in general, what they did in several fields of technology, we have practically nothing from the Greek past.
• “Wheels from carriages and carts survive from deep antiquity,” he said, “but there is absolutely nothing, but the Antikythera fragments that looks anything like a fine gear wheel or small piece of mechanism. Indeed the evidence for scientific instruments and fine mechanical objects is so scant that it is often thought that the Greeks had none.”
Price died in 1983 and his legitimate question remains largely unanswered. In most cases, classical scholars ignore Hellenic science and technology.
A stunning instrument of heavens and Earth
In 2005, a few international scientists went to the bottom of the ancient Greek computer, or so they thought. Two high tech companies, X-Tek from England, and Hewlett Packard from the US joined the scientists and revealed the secrets of the astronomical device.
• They concluded that the Antikythera Mechanism was the most sophisticated technology in the Mediterranean for more than a millennium. They published their reports in the November 30, 2006 and July 31, 2008 issues of the science magazine Nature.
• According to the 2006 report, the Antikythera Mechanism “stands as a witness to the extraordinary technological potential of ancient Greece, apparently lost within the Roman Empire.”
• Why the Antikythera computer almost disappear
• The story is more complicated. The Romans were indifferent to science. Taking the freedom away from the Greeks, however, was a terrible blow to Greek civilization. But the key change that undermined Greek science and technology was the Roman Empire’s decision to wipe out the Greco-Roman polytheistic culture in favor of monotheistic Christianity.
• The new religion devoured Greece that made the Antikythera Mechanism. In all likelihood, the fires of the mint and the blazes of the smelters ate Antikythera Mechanism-like devices, which in the Christian society of Rome lost all utility and meaning.
• A calculator and a calendar
• The Antikythera computer was a practical machine. It must have been widespread in the Greek world for centuries. It was a calculator that read the stars, as well as being a calendar that connected the Panhellenic games like the Olympics to the phenomena in the natural world and the Cosmos. Besides, the accurate calendar helped the Greeks to worship the gods at the same time each year.
• The scientists who studied it were right that this “artifact of ancient gearwork” was more than a device of pure astronomy: “exhibiting longitudes of heavenly bodies on the front dial, eclipse predictions on the lower back display, and a calendrical cycle [on the upper back display].”
• A mechanical universe
• The first inscription on the back of the Antikythera Mechanism reads: “the spiral [ΕΛΙΚΙ] divided into 235 sections.” This meant that one of the back dials was a spiral representing the 19-year Metonic Moon and Sun calendar of 235 months. The other back dial, known as Saros, predicted the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon.
• Two circles enclosed the Cosmos of the front view. The outside circle represented the 365-day year. The inside circle was the Zodiac, an imaginary cosmic circle of 12 constellations around the Earth. The front view also depicted the movement and position of the Sun, Moon, the phases of the Moon, planets, and prominent stars and constellations. The front inscriptions explained which constellations rose and set at any specific time.
• Archimedes and Hipparchos
• The ideas of Archimedes and Hipparchos gave substance to the immaculate astronomical computer of the Greeks.
• In 1907, the German philologist Albert Rehm suggested the Antikythera geared device resembled the Sphere of Archimedes that the Roman politician and man of letters of the first century BCE, Cicero, saw in Rome. This was part of the looted Greek treasures the victorious Roman general Marcellus brought to Rome after his troops captured and looted Syracuse. Agents of Marcellus assassinated Archimedes in 212 BCE.
• Archimedes, a mathematical and engineering genius of the third century BCE, was the father of mathematical physics and mechanics that made the Antikythera computer possible.
Cicero said the planetarium of Archimedes reproduced accurately the movements of the Sun and the Moon, including those of the planets (Venus, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter). It also depicted the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon.
Archimedes, like Aristotle, was crucial in the making of the golden age of Greek science. He measured curved surfaces and applied mathematics for the study and understanding of nature. He was also an astronomer who studied and measured the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Those measurements were important to the designers of the Antikythera machine. Archimedes, like the Antikythera Mechanism, deciphered the book of the Cosmos. He became the model for Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.
Like Archimedes, Hipparchos, the greatest Greek astronomer, made the Antikythera computer possible. From about 140 to 120 BCE he had his laboratory in Rhodes. More than other Greek astronomers, he made use of the data of Babylonian astronomers. But like the rest of the Greek astronomers, he employed geometry in the study and understanding of astronomical phenomena. He invented plane trigonometry and made astronomy the predictive mathematical science it is today.
The connection of Hipparchos to the Antikythera Mechanism is in the front bronze plate of the device where pointers displayed the positions and movement of the Sun and the Moon in the Zodiac.
Hipparchos knew the moon moved around the Earth at different speeds. When the moon is close to the Earth, it moves faster than when it is farther from the Earth when it slows down. This is because the Moon’s orbit is elliptical, not the perfect circular movement the Greeks associated with the stars. Hipparchos resolved this difficulty with his epicyclic lunar theory, which superimposed one circular motion of the Moon onto another, the second movement having a different center.
The Antikythera Mechanism modeled the ideas of Hipparchos with one gearwheel sitting on top of another but located on a different axis. A pin-and-slot mechanism then reproduces the non-circular or elliptical orbit of the Moon. A pin originating from the bottom wheel enters the slot of the wheel above it. When the bottom wheel turns, it also drives around the top gearwheel. However, the wheels have different centers and, therefore, the pin slides back and forth in the slot, which enables the speed of the top wheel to vary while that of the bottom wheel remains constant.
A computer of heavens and civilization
Archimedes and Hipparchos provided the architecture of science and technology of the immaculate astronomical machine. However, they, too, stood on the shoulders of giants like Aristotle who invented biology, and tutored Alexander the Great, general Ptolemaios, and others who contributed to science and technology. Alexander conquered Persia and spread Hellenic culture all over the world.
• Alexander made possible Alexandria, Egypt, which, under the leadership of his general Ptolemaios, became the preeminent Greek polis of science and civilization in the ancient world. Its Mouseion-university and great Library were the equivalent in books, knowledge, and brain power of the Library of Congress, MIT, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge universities.
• The Antikythera computer captured the Greek passion for mathematics, and especially geometry. This enabled them to simulate astronomical phenomena, thus creating an accurate universe with gears.
• Francois Charette, professor of the history of natural sciences at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, studied the Antikythera computer and concluded that “mind-boggling technological sophistication” must have been available to those who made it. He is right. Ptolemaios and his successors lavished gold and political support to the best and the brightest in the Greek world. They developed the culture and mind-boggling science and technology of the astronomical computer.
• The Antikythera computer was more than a mirror of scientific technology, however. It was the culmination of a golden age that enabled the Greeks to give birth to a remarkable civilization that, eventually, became the pillar of our civilization.
Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., is a historian and environmental theorist. He is author of hundreds of articles and 7 books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer (Universal Publishers, 2021).