More than 2000 years ago, during a period before the establishment of the Roman Empire, in an era of constant warfare, there was once an invention that could calculate the movements of the entire solar system. Even with today’s technology, we still have a hard time creating something similar. Like the Grand Complication, it was incredibly complex, especially considering it was created over 2000 years ago. It is believed to be the world’s first analogue computer, an astronomical and horological device. Called The Antikythera Mechanism.
In October 1900, Captain Kondos and his crew of sponge divers from Symi sailed through the Aegean en route to fishing grounds off North Africa. They stopped at the Greek island of Antikythera to wait for favorable winds. During the layover, they began diving off the island's coast wearing standard diving canvas suits and copper helmets.
Diver Elias Stadiatis descended to a depth of 45 meters (148 ft) before being brought back to the surface. He mumbled “A heap of dead naked people.” he described the sight of a mound of decaying corpses and horses scattered amongst the rocky seafloor. Kondos initially thought that Stadiatis was drunk due to the nitrogen in his breathing mixture at that depth. To investigate, Kondos immediately dives in. Upon his return, he was holding a bronze statue's arm. But later, they returned as planned to fish for sponges but revisited the Antikythera site at the end of the season to recover several artifacts from the wreckage. Kondos reported the findings to authorities in Athens, and quickly Hellenic Navy vessels were sent to support the salvage effort from November 1900 through 1901. At that time, the Kingdom of Greece did not have a formal underwater archaeological team until the 1950s, even the major countries in Western Europe did not have an organization dedicated to underwater archaeology, so the salvage work in 1900 was mainly completed by the Royal Greek Navy and local fishermen.
When people found out about the ship, they had no idea when or where the vessel was from until 1976 when Jacques Cousteau (The man who co-invented the first successful Aqua-Lung, open-circuit SCUBA and helped the development of Rolex Submariner, but that’s another story that will unfold in my future article ) with his team found some corns in the ship that was from the Roman Empire, more specifically, the time was the Roman Empire was just established.
The wreck of the trading ship was probably one of the biggest trading ships at the time. It was estimated the ship was sunk in the first half of the 1st century BC (The same period as China was unified from six separated nations by Qin Shi Huang from the Qin dynasty) 70 meters near the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean Sea.
The cargo on the ship contained many artworks, statues, and currencies from different nations dating back to the 1st century BC. Some scholars speculated that the ship was carrying part of the loot of the Roman General Sulla from Athens in 86 BC, and might have been on its way to Roma. A reference by the Greek writer, Lucian, to one of Sulla's ships sinking in the Antikythera region gave rise to this theory. What Is Special About It? The Antikythera mechanism is believed to be the world's first analogue computer and was used to calculate the position of the sun, moon, and planets.
For the first gear of the Antikythera Mechanism, there are 127 teeth on it with the number “235” engraved on the back. The number “235” might seem normal to us but in Ancient Greek it gets a whole different meaning.
In Ancient Greece, people used the moon to calculate time, they measured 1 lunar month is equal to 29.5 days. 12 lunar months equal 354 days, but it differs by 11 days from the Solar Calendar which is 365 days. To correct this, they used the leap months 7 times every 19 years which is 235 lunar months, and there are 235 scales on the dial indicating the lunar months, which means if the gear finished a cycle, the sun, the moon, and the earth make a full rotation every 19 years. What is more interesting is that 19 years is equal to the 254 moon revolution period, different from the lunar months which is 27.3 days. By dividing 254 by 2, we get 127, which is the number of teeth on the first gear, 127. This means there were supposed to be two gears to achieve 254 teeth, and the number 235 is for the calculation to indicate the position of the sun, the moon, and the earth. It’s crazy.
For bigger gear behind the first gear, was found broken when discovered. After constant cleaning, the word “223” was found engraved on the back. But this time, the number “223” is not from Ancient Greece, it is from Sumer, the earliest known civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, dating from 5500 BC to 1475 BC.
In the astronomical records of Sumer, they calculated 223 months, which happens to be a total solar eclipse cycle. This indicates that the larger gear is used to calculate the solar eclipse, while the smaller one is for the lunar eclipse. For another gear with 53 teeth on it, even though it is easy to make a 53 teeth gear, it plays an important role in this monster.
When the moon revolves around the earth, the track is not round but an ellipse. The elliptical orbit itself is also in motion with every 9 years a cycle. This means the moon will then actually return to the starting point after the elliptical orbit finishes a cycle. Therefore to calculate the precise moon movement, the orbit motion has to be calculated as well. Therefore the 53 teeth gear is used to correct the orbit displacement. The accuracy of this correction is accurate to 9 decimal places.
In addition, a groove is opened in front of the gear for the moon phase display.
It was also discovered that the mechanism has numerals and colors on it, which means that not only the Antikythera Mechanism can calculate astronomical events, but also tell the exact time when will it happen and what color the moon will be.
As mentioned, all the numbers like 53, 127, 235, 223 teeth, 19 years, and 235 scales are prime numbers, and all the gears are odd numbers, indicating this is a very optimized system. It is easier to make the gear teeth even numbers because circles can be easily divided, but instead, it was made in odd numbers, with every tooth needing to be a little bit off for the extra teeth. Even with modern machinery, it is still very difficult to manufacture, let alone it is from the Iron Age, more than 2000 years ago.
All of this is just from the 7 pieces recovered from the shipwreck, not to mention the missing pieces. It is also speculated that the Antikythera Mechanism can calculate the whole solar system and other astronomical events, not just the Earth, moon, and sun. But this led to another question… Who Created The Antikythera Mechanism? As mentioned previously, the knowledge required to create the Antikythera Mechanism was extensive. Not only did the person need to have a deep understanding of physics and mathematics, but also Greek and Sumerian astronomy. There are several mainstream hypotheses regarding its origin.
For the ancient legend one, the Antikythera Mechanism was from an island called “Rhode Island” on the Aegean Sea. In legend, the island was described as exceptionally advanced, resembling Atlantis. The island was also known for the construction of the famous Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World.
The Colossus of Rhodes was a statue of the Greek sun god Helios, erected in the city of Rhodes. Construction began in 292 BC and finished in 280 BC, tall 33 meters, approximately the height of the modern Statue of Liberty. It was the largest bronze statue in the world at that time. The statue lasted 54 years before it collapsed during the earthquake in 226 BC.
It was said that the island developed many futuristic technologies, one of them being robot technology. An Ancient Greek lyric poet from Thebes, Pindar, once wrote a poem about this island:
Pindar refers to the first inhabitants of that island, the Heliadae, as enjoying the favors of Zeus and Athena, including the gift of technical skill from the goddess for them to become supreme artisans. Research from C.A.P. Ruck, “Marginalia Pindarica”,129-30 notes the last sentence of the poem as “the ability to make “moving statues” is not per se an indication of malice as this was a feature of Hephaestus work.” From the research of G.H. Schaefer and Cambridge also see the last sentence as a reference to the Telchines’ art in the description of the “lifelike statues” by the road.
From here, if Rhode Island did have robot technology at that time, there is no doubt they could make something like the Antikythera Mechanism.
For the realistic one, it was suspected that the mechanism was designed by a legendary mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer, and inventor from the ancient city of Syracuse in Sicily, Archimedes of Syracuse.
As mentioned, Archimedes was a mathematician, physicist, and engineer who made significant contributions to science. His achievements include integral calculus, accurate calculation of pi, principles of buoyancy, innovative mechanical designs etc. His work influenced science and technology.
When it comes to his astronomy or horology-related inventions, The Orrery is one of his inventions. It is a kind of planetarium in which model planets are moved by clockwork to simulate the movements of actual planets (in his time, in Ptolemaic epicycles, not in Keplerian ellipses). Such devices were made in Hellenic times, and it is probable that Archimedes made one, as well as the Antikythera Mechanism.
While research is ongoing, it was found that there are more words engraved on the gear of the Antikythera Mechanism. A few words were found that represent the name of the moon, which is the ancient Corinthians’ name for it. And Archimedes was the descendant of the Corinthians.
It is highly likely that Archimedes invented the Antikythera Mechanism, he is the only one contender as the inventor of the device as it has also been attributed to Hipparchus of Nicea (l. 190-120 BCE) and others. Cicero's mention of Archimedes' similar inventions, however, is corroborated by the mathematician Pappus of Alexandria (l. 290 to c. 350 CE), who claimed that Archimedes had written a work on how to construct such devices. The identity of the inventor continues to be debated, however the Antikythera Mechanism is highly made or developed by Archimedes. Archimedes is often credited with inventing the lever, but what he actually did was explain how the lever worked and allow for more precise use of it. According to the story, he remarked, “Give me a place to stand on, and with a lever I will move the whole world,” Hiero challenged Archimedes to a demonstration. Archimedes obliged by using compound pulleys to launch single-handedly one of the largest ships made up to that time, complete with crew aboard. The lever was also used to improve existing catapults for the defense of Syracuse against the Romans.
During the Second Punic War, Syracuse was allied with Rome but switched sides to support Carthage. Rome sent the generals Claudius Marcellus and Appius Claudius Pulcher (d. 211 BCE) against Syracuse in 214 BCE to bring it back in line. The Romans seem to have thought the campaign would be an easy one until they encountered Archimedes' war machines which are said to have defended the city for two years. General Claudius Marcellus recalled the battle as “This battle is a war between our Roman army and one man, Archimedes.” Archimedes invented many machines for the defense of Syracuse, such as the claw of Archimedes, “Greek Fire” and ”Death Ray”.
However, in the end, the Romans circled and stormed the city with the order to capture Archimedes alive. But a Roman soldier, unable to recognize Archimedes, killed him on sight, with Archimedes' last word, “ DO NOT DISTURB MY CIRCLES!” Archimedes, a legendary and great scientist, died at the age of 75 in 212 BCE. Many of his inventions, theories, and works still remain and are used to this day.
With all the above mentioned, Archimedes’ talent and ability is most likely the only one capable of inventing the Antikythera Mechanism.
Why Is The Antikythera Mechanism Created?
The reason for such a complicated mechanism being created is still unknown. Take China as an example, China is the earliest country to develop and research astronomy devices, the reason they created such inventions is because China is an agricultural society where season and timing are crucial for them to ensure the harvest of food. However, Greece primarily relies on fishing rather than farming as their main source of food. Therefore it seems somewhat unreasonable for them to have invented this device. Moreover, considering the complexity of the mechanism of calculating the position of the solar system, the reason for their invention remains unclear. How Do The Discovery of Antikythera Mechanism Impact Us? While the discovery of this ancient device may seem to only contribute to our understanding of history, it actually has a significant impact on our society.
Before the discovery, the Antikythera Mechanism has actually been mentioned many times in ancient Greek history, especially in many mythology books. However, since there is no such device being found, we thought the device was just another Greek Story. However, after the Antikythera Mechanism was discovered, it seems many Greek Stories are actually telling the truth. In the book “De Re Publica” by Marcus Tullius Cicero, the book mentions “For when Archimedes fastened on a globe the movements of moon, sun and five wandering stars, he, just like Plato's God who built the world in the Timaeus, made one revolution of the sphere control several movements utterly unlike in slowness and speed.” Which is similar to the Antikythera Mechanism we mentioned. However, this was originally classified as a myth because the book contained many ridiculous things such as “Two Suns”.
However, if the rest of the pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism can be found and restored, as well as work as intended like the history described. It suggests that many 'Greek Stories' are actually based on reality, including tales of the Colossus of Rhodes, Atlantis, and Zeus. But most importantly, it definitely changes our understanding of history. How can they come up with such designs? Such development still cannot be achieved in modern technology, how can they create such complicated devices more than 2000 years ago? Something we need time to understand.
The Antikythera Mechanism is definitely one of the biggest discoveries in the 2000s. The device is in the National Archaeological Museum. But the device is a replica, it is said that the genuine is even more valuable than the Mona Lisa’s smile. Highly recommend paying a visit there if you go to Greece, and hope the rest of the pieces can be found to solve the puzzle.
It’s my first time truly diving deep into the study of mythology and history. It has indeed been a bit challenging, especially considering the ancient time periods and the need to understand Ancient Greek texts to fully grasp certain aspects. As a result, the article may be a bit disorganized, but I have truly learned a lot from this research. It has also changed my perspective on history. I hope everyone enjoys it, and I will continue to research different topics in the future. Stay tuned for more exciting content!