Dissecting an ancient computer | Astronomy.com


The individual who commissioned the mechanism will likely always remain a mystery, as will the craftsman who built it. But there are clues inscribed on the bronze plates that can help reveal the society that devised such a device. In the ancient world, calendars were far from uniform. And based on the names of months and festival designations inscribed on its bronze plates and dials, the Antikythera mechanism likely was born somewhere in northwest Greece. 

In this region was the island of Rhodes — home to the astronomer Hipparcus (190–120 b.c.) and his successor Posidonis (135–51 b.c.) at the time of their deaths. The Antikythera mechanism was likely made around the time that Posidonis was teaching and traveling across the Roman world. The Roman senator and contemporary of Julius Caesar, Cicero (106–43 b.c.), even once mentioned the home of a prominent Roman containing what may have been an orrery or planetarium device made by Posidonis. This brief allusion tells us that the Antikythera mechanism was perhaps just one example of many similar devices that existed throughout the ancient world at the time.

For example, at the base of the ancient Acropolis in Athens, Greece, stands the Tower of the Winds. Constructed at about the same time as the Antikythera mechanism, this tower served both meteorological and time-keeping functions. And to do that, it relied on sundials, wind vanes, and even a geared water clock. The first-century Greek inventor Hero of Alexandria developed even more complicated devices than the Tower of Winds, too, including steam engines, the first vending machine, a wind-powered organ, automatic doors, and much more. The Greek and Roman world was alive with ideas, inventions, and creativity at this point in history. Although the Antikythera mechanism has long been considered an advanced anomaly, in fact, it was part of a thriving tradition of innovation.

The Antikythera mechanism could calculate 42 separate calendar functions, predict the motion of the Moon, the positions of planets, and the timing of lunar and solar eclipses. It helped track religious ceremonies, festivals, and the Greek Panhellenic games, as well as other sporting events. And it did this all roughly 1,500 years before another comparable device was known to exist. Using only astronomy, mathematics, and simple tools, the Antikythera mechanism truly capture the cosmos — and Greek culture — in a box.



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