|The Antikythera Computer was discussed at some length in The HAB
theory. Here is an article on that device from Scientific American.
An Ancient Greek Computer
In 1901 divers working off the isle of Antikythera
found the remains of a clocklike mechanism that was 2,000 years old. The mechanism now
appears to have been a device for calculating the motions of stars and planets.
----- by Derek J. de Solla Price
From June 1959 Scientific American p.60-7
Among the treasures of the Greek National Archaeological
Museum in Athens are the remains of the most complex scientific object that
has been preserved from antiquity. Corroded and crumbling from 2,000 years
under the sea, its dials, gear wheels and inscribed plates present the historian
with a tantalizing problem. Because of them we may have to revise many of
our estimates of Greek science. By studying them we may find vital clues to
the true origins of that high scientific technology which hitherto has seemed
peculiar to our modern civilization, setting it apart from all cultures of
From the evidence of the fragments one can get a good idea of
the appearance of the original object. Consisting of a box with dials on the
outside and a very complex assembly of gear wheels mounted within, it must
have resembled a well- made 18ih-century clock. Doors hinged to the box served
to protect the dials, and on all available surfaces of box, doors and dials
there were long Greek inscriptions describing the operation and construction
of the instrument. At least 20 gear wheels of the mechanism have been preserved,
including a very sophisticated assembly of gears that were mounted eccentrically
on a turntable and probably functioned as a sort of epicyclic or differential,
Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing
comparable to it is known. from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion.
On the contrary, from all that we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic
Age we should have felt that such a device could not exist. Some historians
have suggested that the Greeks were not interested in experiment because of
a contempt-perhaps induced by the existence of the institution of slavery-for
manual labor. On the other hand it has long been recognized that in abstract
mathematics and in mathematical astronomy they were no beginners but rather
"fellows of another college" who reached great heights of sophistication.
Many of the Greek scientific devices known to us from written descriptions
show much mathematical ingenuity, but in all cases the purely mechanical part
of the design seems relatively crude. Gearing was clearly known to the Greeks,
but it was used only in relatively simple applications. They employed
pairs of gears to change angular speed or mechanical ad- vantage, or to apply
power through a right angle, as in the water-driven mill.
Even the most complex mechanical devices described by the ancient
writers Hero of Alexandria and Vitruvius contained only simple gearing. For
example, the taximeter used by the Greeks to measure the distance travelled
by the wheels of a carriage employed only pairs of gears (or gears and worms)
to achieve the necessary ratio of movement. It could be argued that if the
Greeks knew the principle of gearing, they should have had no difficulty in
constructing mechanisms as complex as epicyclic gears. We now know from the
fragments in the National Museum that the Greeks did make such mechanisms,
but the knowledge is so unexpected that some scholars at first thought that
the fragments must belong to some more modern device.
Can we in fact be sure that the device
is ancient? If we can, what was its purpose? What can it tell us of the ancient
world and of the evolution of modern science? To authenticate the dating of
the fragments We must. tell the story of their discovery, which involves the
first (though inadvertent) adventure in underwater archaeology. Just before
Easter in 1900 a party of Dodecanese sponge-divers were driven by storm to
anchor near the tiny southern Greek island of Antikythera (the accent is on
the "kyth," pronounced to rhyme with pith).
There, at a depth of some 200
feet, they found the wreck of an ancient ship. With the help of Greek archaeologists
the wreck was explored; several fine bronze and marble statues and other objects
were recovered. The finds created great excitement, but the difficulties of
diving without heavy equipment were immense, and in September, 1901, the "dig'
was abandoned. Eight months later Valerios StaÎs, an archaeologist at
the National Museum, was examining some calcified lumps of corroded bronze
that had been set aside as possible pieces of broken statuary. Suddenly he
recognized among them the fragments of a mechanism.
It is now accepted that the wreck occurred during the first century
B.C. Gladys Weinberg of Athens has been kind enough to report to me the results
of several recent archaeological examinations of the amphorae, pottery and
minor objects from the ship. It appears from her report that one might reason-ably
date the wreck more closely as 65 B.C. ±15 years. Furthermore, since
the identifiable objects come from Rhodes and Cos, it seems that the ship
may have. been voyaging from these islands to Rome, perhaps without calling
at the Greek mainland.
The fragment that first caught the eye of StaÎs was one
of the corroded, inscribed plates that is an integral part of the Antikythera
mechanism, as the device later came to be called. StaÎs saw immediately
that the inscription was ancient. In the opinion of the epigrapher Benjamin
Dean Meritt, the forms of the letters are those of the 'first century B.C.;
they could hardly be older than 100 B.C. nor younger than the time of Christ.
The dating is supported by the content of the inscriptions.
The words used
and their astronomical sense are all of this period. For example, the most
extensive and complete piece of inscription is part of a parapegma (astronomical
calendar) similar to that written by one Geminos, who is thought to have lived
in Rhodes about 77 B.C. We may thus be reasonably sure that the mechanism
did not find its way into the wreck at some later period. Furthermore, it
cannot have been very old when it was taken aboard the ship as booty or merchandise.
As soon as the fragments had been discovered they were examined
by every available archaeologist; so began the long and difficult process
of identifying the mechanism and determining its function. Some things were
clear from the beginning. The unique importance of the object was obvious,
and the gearing was impressively complex. From the inscriptions and the dials
the mechanism was correctly identified as an astronomical device. The first
conjecture was that it was some kind of navigating instrument – perhaps an
astrolabe (a sort of circular star-finder map also used for simple observations).
Some thought that it might be a small planetarium of the kind that Archirnedes
is said to have made.
Unfortunately the fragments were covered by a thick
curtain of calcified material and corrosion products, and these concealed
so much detail that no one could be sure of his conjectures or reconstructions.
There was nothing to do but wait for the slow and delicate work of the Museum
technicians in cleaning away this curtain. Meantime, as the work proceeded,
several scholars published accounts of all that was visible, and through their
labors a general picture of the mechanism began to emerge.
On the basis of new photographs made for me
by the Museum in 1955 I realized that the work of cleaning had reached a point
where it might at last be possible to take the work of identification to a
new level. Last summer, wilt the assistance of a grant from the American Philosophical
Society, I was able to visit Athens and make a minute examination of the fragments.
By good fortune George Stamires, a Greek epigrapher, was there at the same
time; he was able to give me invaluable help by deciphering and transcribing
much more of the inscriptions than had been read before.
We are now in the
position of being able to "join" the fragments and to see how they fitted
together in the original machine and when they were brought up from the sea
[see illustration]. The success of this work
has been most significant, for previously it had been supposed that the various
dials and plates had been badly squashed together and distorted. It now appears
that most of the pieces are very nearly in their original places, and that
we have a much larger fraction of the complete device than had been thought.
This work also provides a clue to the puzzle of why the fragments lay unrecognized
until StaÎs saw them. When they were found, the fragments were probably
held together in their original positions by the remains of the wooden frame
of the case. In the Museum the waterlogged wood dried and shrivelled. The
fragments then fell apart, revealing the interior of the mechanism, with its
gears and inscribed plates. As a result of the new examinations we shall in
due course be able to publish a technical account of the fragments and of
the construction of the instrument. In the meantime we can tentatively summarize
some of these results and show how they help to answer the question. What
There are four ways of getting at the answer First, if we knew the
details of the mechanism, we should know what it did. Second, if we could
read the dials, we could tell what they showed. Third, if we could understand
the inscriptions, they might tell us about the mechanism. Fourth, if we knew
of any similar mechanism, analogies might be helpful. All these approaches
must be used, for none of them is complete.
The geared wheels within the mechanism were mounted on a bronze plate. On
one side of the plate we can trace all the gear wheels of the assembly and
can determine, at least approximately, how many teeth each had and how they
meshed together. On the other side we can do nearly as well, but we still
lack vital links that would provide a complete picture of the gearing. The
general pattern of the mechanism is nonetheless quite clear. An input was
provided by an axle that came through the side of the casing and turned a
crown-gear wheel. This moved a big, four-spoked driving-wheel that was connected
with two trains of gears that respectively led up and down the plate and were
connected by axles to gears on the other side of the plate. On that side the
gear-trains continued, leading through an epicyclic turntable and coming eventually
to a set of shafts that turned the dial pointers. When the input axle was
turned, the pointers all moved at various speeds around their dials.
Certain structural features of the mechanism deserve special attention. All
the metal parts of the machine seem to have been cut from a single sheet of
low-tin bronze about two millimeters thick; no parts were cast or made of
another metal. There are indications that the maker may have used a sheet
made much earlier–uniform metal plate of good quality was probably rare and
expensive. All the gear wheels have been made with teeth of just the same
angle (60 degrees) and size, so that any wheel could mesh with any other.
There are signs that the machine was repaired at least twice; a spoke of the
has been mended, and a broken tooth in a small wheel has been replaced. This
indicates that the machine actually worked.
The casing was provided with three dials, one
at the front and two at the back. The fragments of all of them are still covered
with pieces of the doors of the casing and with other debris. Very little
can be read on the dials, but there is hope that they can be cleaned sufficiently
to provide information that might be decisive. The front dial is just clean
enough to say exactly what it did. It has two scales, one of which is fixed
and displays the names of the signs of the zodiac; the other is on a movable
slip ring and shows the months of the year. Both scales are carefully marked
off in degrees. The front dial fitted exactly over the main driving-wheel,
which seems to have turned the pointer by means of an eccentric drum-assembly.
Clearly this dial showed the annual motion of the sun in the zodiac. By means
of key letters inscribed on the zodiac scale, corresponding to other letters
on the parapegma calendar plate, it also showed the main risings and settings
of bright stars and constellations throughout the year.
The back dials are more complex and less legible. The lower one had three
slip rings; the upper, four. Each had a little subsidiary dial resembling
the "seconds" dial of a watch. Each of the large dials is inscribed with lines
about every six degrees, and between the lines there are letters and numbers.
On the lower dial the letters and numbers seem to record "moon, so many hours;
sun, so many hours"; we therefore suggest that this scale indicates the main
lunar phenomena of phases and times of rising and setting. On the upper dial
the inscriptions are much more crowded and might well present information
on the risings and settings, stations and retrogradations of the planets known
to the Greeks (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).
Some of the technical details of the dials are especially interesting. The
front dial provides the only known extensive specimen from antiquity of a
scientifically graduated instrument. When we measure the accuracy of the graduations
under the microscope, we find that their average error over the visible 45
degrees is about a quarter of a degree. The way in which the error varies
suggests that the arc was first geometrically divided and then subdivided
by eye only. Even more important, this dial may give a means of dating the
instrument astronomically. The slip ring is necessary because the old Egyptian
calendar, having no leap years, fell into error by 1/4 day every year; the
month scale thus had to be adjusted by this amount. As they are preserved
the two scales of the dial are out of phase by 13½ degrees. Standard
tables show that this amount could only occur in the year 80 B.C. and (because
we do not know the month) at all years just 120 years (i.e., 30 days divided
by 1/4 day per year) before or after that date.
Alternative dates are archaeologically
unlikely: 200 B.C. is too early; 40 A.D. is too late. Hence, if the slip ring
has not moved from its last position, it was set in. 80 B.C. Furthermore,
if we are right in supposing that a fiducial mark near the month scale was
put there originally to provide a means of setting that scale in case of accidental
movement, we can tell more. This mark is exactly 1/2 degree away from the
present position of the scale, and this implies that the mark was made two
years before the setting. Thus, although the evidence is by no means conclusive,
we are led to suggest that the instrument was made about 82 B.C., used for
two years (just long enough for the repairs to have been needed) and then
taken onto the ship within the next 30 years.
The fragments show that the original instrument
carried at least four large areas of inscription: outside the front door,
inside the back door, on the plate between the two back dials and on the parapegma
plates near the front dial. As I have noted, there are also inscriptions around
all the dials, and furthermore each part and hole would seem to have had identifying
letters so that the pieces could be put together in the correct order and
position. The main inscriptions are in a sorry state and only short snatches
of them can be read. To provide an idea of their condition it need only be
said that in some cases a plate has completely disappeared, leaving behind
an impression of its letters, standing up in a mirror image, in relief on
the soft corrosion products on the plate below. It is remarkable that such
inscriptions can be read at all.
But even from the evidence of a few complete words one can get an idea of
the subject matter. The sun is mentioned several times, and the planet Venus
once; terms are used that refer to the stations and retrogradations of planets;
the ecliptic is named. Pointers, apparently those of the dials, are mentioned.
A line of one inscription signfficantly records "76 years, 19 years." This
refers to the well-known Calippic cycle of 76 years, which is four times the
Metonic cycle of 19 years, or 235 synodic (lunar) months. The next line includes
the number "223," which refers to the eclipse cycle of 223 lunar months.
Putting together the information gathered so far, it seems reasonable to suppose
that the whole purpose of the Antikythera device was to mechanize just this
sort of cyclical relation, which was a strong feature of ancient astronomy.
Using the cycles that have been mentioned, one could easily design gearing
that would operate from one dial having a wheel that revolved annually, and
turn by this gearing a series of other wheels which would move pointers indicating
the sidereal, synodic and draconitic months. Similar cycles were known for
the planetary phenomena; in fact, this type of arithmetical theory is the
central theme of Seleucid Babylonian astronomy, which was transmitted to the
Hellenistic world in the last few centuries B.C. Such arithmetical schemes
are quite distinct from the geometrical theory of circles and epicycles
in astronomy, which seems to have been essentially Greek. The two types of
theory were unified and brought to their peak in the second century A.D. by
Claudius Ptolemy, whose labors marked the triumph of the new mathematical
attitude toward geometrical models that still characterizes physics today.
The Antikythera mechanism must therefore be an arithmetical counterpart of
the much more familiar geometrical models of the solar system which were known
to Plato and Archimedes and evolved into the orrery and the planetarium. The
mechanism is like. a great astronomical clock without an escapement, or like
a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts to save tedious calculation.
It is a pity that we have no way of knowing whether the device was turned
automatically or by hand. It might have been held in the hand and turned by
a wheel at the side so that it would operate as a computer, possibly for astrological
use. I feel it is more likely that it was permanently mounted, perhaps set
in a statue, and displayed as an exhibition piece. In that case it might well
have been turned by the power from a water clock or some other device. Perhaps
it is just such a wondrous device that was mounted inside the famous Tower
of Winds in Athens. It is certainly very similar to the great astronomical
cathedral clocks that were built all over Europe during the Renaissance.
It is to the prehistory of the mechanical I
clock that we must look for important analogies the Antikythera mechanism
and for an assessment of its significance. Unlike other mechanical devices,
the clock did not evolve from the simple to the complex. The oldest clocks
of which we are well informed were the most complicated. All the evidence
points to the fact that the clock started as an astronomical showpiece that
happened also to indicate the time. Gradually the timekeeping functions became
more important and the device that showed the marvelous clockwork of the heavens
became subsidiary. Behind the astronomical clocks of the 14th century there
stretches an unbroken sequence of mechanical models of astronomical theory.
At the head of this sequence is the Antikythera mechanism. Following it are
instruments and clocklike computers known from Islam, from China and India
and from the European Middle Ages. The importance of this line is very great,
because it was the tradition of clock- making that preserved most of man's
skill in scientific fine mechanics. During the Renaissance the scientific
instrument-makers evolved from the clockmakers. Thus the Antikythera mechanism
is, in a way, the venerable progenitor of all our present plethora of
A significant passage in this story has to do with the astronomical computers
of Islam. Preserved complete at the Museum of History of Science at Oxford
is a 13th-century Islamic geared calendar-computer that has various periods
built into it, so that it shows on dials the various cycles of the sun and
moon. This design can be traced back, with slightly different periods but
a similar arrangement of gears, to a manuscript written by the astronomer
al-Biruni about 1000 A.D. Such instruments am much simpler than the Antikythera
mechanism, but they show so many points of agreement in technical detail that
it seems clear they came from a common tradition. The same 60-degree gear
teeth are used; wheels are mounted on square-shanked axles; the geometrical
layout of the gear assembly appears comparable. It was just at this time that
Islam was drawing on Greek knowledge and rediscovering ancient Greek texts.
It seems likely that the Antikythera tradition was part of a large corpus
of knowledge that has since been lost to us but was known to the Arabs. It
was developed and transmitted by them to medieval Europe, where it .became
the foundation for the whole range of subsequent invention in the field of
On the one hand the Islamic devices knit the whole story together, and demonstrate
that it is through ancestry and not mere coincidence that the Antikythera
mechanism resembles a modern clock. On the other hand they show that the Antikythera
mechanism was no flash in the pan but was a part of an important current in
Hellenistic civilization. History has contrived to keep that current dark
to us, and only the accidental underwater preservation of fragments that would
otherwise have crumbled to dust has now brought it to light. It is a bit frightening
to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient
Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in
their scientific technology.