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Antikythera Mechanism

June 21st, 2011 by

Ancient Greek mechanical computer has a fascinating story.

If you’ve never heard of the Antikythera mechanism, prepare to be astonished. Built more than 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece, this device is the world’s first mechanical computer, with a degree of sophistication and complexity assumed not to have been possible until 1,400 years later.

Found in a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, it was shelved for half a century, its wonders concealed by millennia of rock formation and decay. It wasnÂ’t until 1951 when British physicist Derek de Solla Price initiated a systematic investigation into the device that its complexity was revealed, astounding the scientific world. The device contained over 30 gears, with unusual numbers of teeth arranged in complex ratios, and most astonishingly, incorporating a system of epicyclic gearing (gears moving with their axes on other gears). This was a computer, designed for predicting solar and lunar eclipses, of the likes not seen until the 14th century.

Recent advances in x-ray technology have allowed the inscriptions on the cogs to be uncovered, revealing another astonishing fact about its original purpose: the device was used to track the four-yearly timing of the original Olympic Games.

It is likely that the device was built in Syracuse, in modern-day Sicily, Italy, which was once an important city in Ancient Greece and the home town of the scholar Archimedes. It is possible that the device is based on one originally built by Archimedes himself.

The mechanical sophistication of device is considered to be comparable to a 19th century Swiss clock, and it has been stated that its historic value and scarcity exceeds that of the Mona Lisa. The device is housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.

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