The Mysterious Story Of The Antikythera Mechanism, History’s First Computer

Published April 16, 2018
Updated December 28, 2018

Unlocking the mysteries of the Antikythera mechanism, a 2,000-year-old device that was history's first computer, a device so advanced its technology wouldn't be seen again for 1,000 years.

Antiktheyra Mechanism

FlickrThe Antikythera mechanism on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

At the turn of the last century, a ship full of Greek divers hit a storm near the small island of Antikythera, where they decided to dock and wait out the inclement weather. Once the storm had passed, the divers decided to try their luck and see what they could catch right off the island, unaware of what was waiting for them below the surface.

One diver quickly returned in a panic, claiming he had seen decomposing bodies from a shipwreck littered across the ocean floor. Captain Dimitrios Kontos dove down to take a look for himself; he too saw the limbs scattered in the depths, although he quickly realized that they belonged to statues, not humans.

It turns out that the crew of the ship carrying the statues had encountered a storm near Antikythera just like Captain Kontos and his crew, only these unfortunate sailors had set off on their expedition more than 2,000 years earlier. Coins found on the wreck put the year of its sinking around 85 B.C., and the Greek government was quick to begin mining its many treasures, which had been hidden on the ocean’s floor for two millennia.

Shipwreck Containing Antikythera Mechanism

Wikimedia CommonsArchaeologists prepare to excavate the wreck containing the Antikythera mechanism. Circa 1900-1901.

In the bustle to restore the statues and vases that had been the ship’s cargo, what would turn out to be its greatest treasure was initially overlooked. An innocuous lump of bronze and wood, the Antikythera mechanism might have gone unnoticed altogether had it not cracked open in 1902, and one of the archaeologists noticed the gear wheels hidden inside.

The astoundingly-modern looking ancient device had originally consisted of 82 pieces, including 30 interlocking gear wheels: a technology that would not be seen again in Europe for another 1,000 years.

Although the original archaeologists were amazed at what they had discovered, it wasn’t until X-ray technology became available that the complexity of the device was fully revealed. The technology fueling the Antikythera mechanism as revealed by the scans proved so advanced that there is a popular theory claiming that aliens helped create the device.

Often referred to as “the world’s first computer,” the Antikythera mechanism was actually a tool used in astronomy. Its two metal dials displayed the zodiac and the days of the year, with pointers indicating the location of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets that were known to the Greeks (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).

The gears and wheels were created with painstaking detail and the ratios of the different wheels were used to mimic different motions of the celestial objects, such as the Moon around the Earth. The measurements were so precise that it enabled its user to predict celestial events like eclipses and show the phase changes of the moon, among other things.

Antikythera First Computer In The World

Wikimedia CommonsA reconstruction on what the interior of the Antikythera mechanism would have looked like.

The Antikythera mechanism also bears minuscule inscriptions, which are helping archaeologists formulate theories as to its origins.

One theory centers on the Greek city of Rhodes, which was home to a famous astronomy school, founded by the philosopher Posidonius. The wreck off Antikythera contained several Rhodian vases, indicating that the vessel may have set off from there. Another big clue comes from the first-century B.C. writings of the Roman politician Cicero, who described a device made by Posidonius “which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon, and the five planets.”

Although Cicero may have helped trace the origins of the Antikythera mechanism, there are certainly still many unanswered questions: Was it the only such device of its kind? Or was it simply the only to be preserved and then discovered? If this technology existed in the ancient world, why did it then disappear until the Middle Ages?

Antiktheyra Mechanism Side View

Wikimedia CommonsThe advanced gears of the Antikythera mechanism (photo depicts a reconstruction of the device).

Indeed, the gear mechanisms used in the Antikythera mechanism would not be seen again in Europe until the 14th century when they resurfaced, seemingly out of nowhere, in clocks. So did aliens make another appearance on Earth at that time and reinstruct humans on this advanced technology? Some theorists might say so.

As for historians, they think it’s possible that the technology in question never disappeared entirely but simply re-emerged in the Middle Ages, potentially through the Middle Eastern caliphates who had preserved it through the Dark Ages.

Nevertheless, that hasn’t kept the mystery and awe surrounding this astounding device from dying out.

After this look at the Antikythera mechanism, the first computer in the world, read up on some more of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries of all time. Then, check out some interesting facts about history that most people have never heard before.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.