You may have noticed a rather curious looking Google Doodle crop up on your desktop today, and if you’ve been brave enough to click on through, you may have been confronted with something called the Antikythera Mechanism. For those who don’t know what this is, prepare yourself for some seriously sexy historical science.
Once upon a time in Ancient Greece, around 150 BCE, someone decided to build a computer. Not a digital computer like we all know and love/hate today, but an analogue one. A computer describes anything that uses set rules to perform a task automatically, at least after a human kickstarts it into life.
Take Lord Kelvin – formally Sir William Thomson – and his tide-predicting machine. Using bolts, cogs, gears, and dials, this contraption was designed to predict the ebb and flow of sea tides, but there wasn’t a bit nor a USB port in sight.
The Antikythera Mechanism is another analogue computer much like this – however, this is one of the oldest computers, perhaps the very oldest, that humanity has ever devised. It was, essentially, a highly accurate calendar.
By turning a small hand crank, the 37 other gear wheels within it would move around, which resulted in the simultaneous calculation of the positions of the Sun and the Moon, the moon phase, when the next eclipse would be, and – according to some researchers – the positions of some of the visible planets.
Far from just being bound by skyward phenomena, the dial was also recently found to be able to schedule when the next Olympic Games should take place.
The Greeks were rather splendid mathematicians, so it should come as no surprise that they invented such a device – but its craftsmanship is nevertheless truly extraordinary, especially considering how old it is. In fact, this ability to closely map the celestial dance of the heavens was lost soon afterwards, only to reappear once more in the 14th century, some 1,400 years later.
The device was found on May 17, 1902, which means that today is the discovery’s 115th anniversary – hence the Doodle.
Back then, at the turn of the 20th century, divers were sifting through a sunken Roman cargo ship just offshore from the island of Antikythera when they spotted some heavily corroded bronze poking its head out of the mire. When it was retrieved – all seven major fragments of it – it was found to feature Egyptian month names, but transcribed into Greek characters.
The cultures of three of the great ancient realms were all represented in this one incredible device, and archaeologists quickly realized the importance of the find. Although plenty has been deciphered in the last 115 years, its designers and several of its functions remain tantalizingly unknown.