The Oldest Computer—The Antikythera Mechanism

The Oldest Computer—The Antikythera Mechanism

Some say it’s the world’s oldest computer.

  • Maybe 1200 B.C.: A merchant ship sank near the Greek island of Antikythera. It carried ordinary cargo like bronze and marble statues, clay jars, silver coins, ceramic dishes.
  • 1900 A.D.: Greek fishermen, diving for sponges, found debris and artifacts from the wreck.
  • 1902: A Greek archeologist turned up, in the artifacts from the ship, a device no one had seen before—a clock-like instrument with gears, wheels, handles, rotating balls, clock-face dials.  Nothing like it has been found since, either.
  • 1970-1990s: Scientists studied the device with x-rays.  They discovered you could use it to track the sun, moon, and planets.
  • 2006: CT scans revealed tiny Greek writing on the pieces, not exactly a built-in instruction manual, more like parts labels, but important clues to where it might have been made and what it was supposed to do—enough for scholars now to understand at least some of the workings.
  • We know the Mechanism tracked planetary positions, predicted lunar and solar eclipses, and even signaled the next Olympic Games. It might have been used for mapping and navigation.
  • Where was this instrument made? Who made it?  Was it being shipped to Rome for education, or for some wealthy collector?  Those who study it have guessed, but no one knows for sure.

Disclosure:  The Antikythera Mechanism is an analog-type computer, not a digital one.   I found definitions that confused me; my simplified, if less accurate, definition is that analog computers (slide rules are one example) are mechanical and digital ones electronic.

The Antikythera mechanism on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

“Analog and Digital: Different Ways to Measure and Model the World

Our world is a symphony of infinite variations. Long before digital computers existed, engineers built models to simulate those real world nuances.

“Analog computers continued this tradition, using mechanical motion or the flow of electricity to model problems and generate answers quickly. They remained the preferred tool until digital computers, based on electronic switches, became fast enough for software to do the same job.”

TO LEARN MORE:  Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd, Mountain View, CA 94043

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