Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but researchers have finally unlocked an understanding of an ancient mechanical work that has been arrested for about 2,000 years. Discovered more than a century ago, the Antikythera Mechanism is a kind of astronomical calculator, characterized by some as the first computer. The fragmented device, which is thought to predict planets’ movement, was found in the sea in 1901, salvaged from a merchant ship that wrecked off the Greek island of Antikythera. According to the Guardian, the shipwreck was the result of a storm in the first century BCE, which beset the vessel as it passed between Crete and the Peloponnese en route to Rome from Asia Minor.
Researchers at UCL have labored to reconstruct a working model of the 2,000-year-old mechanism, based on 82 bronze fragments that survived the millennia underwater. Many unsuccessful attempts have been made over the past 100 years to reconcile astrological and mechanical patterns with a display of the ancient Greek Cosmos of Sun, Moon, and all five planets known in antiquity. This first computer contained more than 30 bronze gearwheels connected to dials and pointers and is activated by a crank handle.
Researchers had to decipher engravings on the front and back of the device, which was originally housed in a wooden case, that specify events and predictions for the behavior of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Then followed a great deal of calculation designed to reconcile “period relations” — the relationship between planets in orbit — by calibrating the geared mechanism. Between the study of ancient astronomical records, complex mathematics, and precisely engineered parts, researchers have finally constructed a working model that replicates the function of the first computer. However, while the current experiment utilizes a set of nested, hollow axles that allow the precise, interlocking rotation of the heavens, the research team isn’t sure ancient Greeks had the capacity to create such hardware.
“The concentric tubes at the core of the planetarium are where my faith in Greek tech falters, and where the model might also falter,” Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at UCL, told the Guardian. “Lathes would be the way today, but we can’t assume they had those for metal.”
Whether or not the research team has nailed down every particular, the mere fact of creating a working model from such a complex and fragmented template is wildly impressive.