If you ask someone who invented the computer, they might tell you Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. of course they would be wrong. Perhaps they could mention Alan Turing (who proposed a “Museum of Universal Computing”) or the US Navy’s WWII-era torpedo data computer.
But computers, which were initially envisioned as computing devices, are much older than that, and older than the modern world.
The world’s oldest analog computer is the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek device designed to calculate astronomical positions.
And now the media is reporting that a lost piece, which somehow survived the looters, has been discovered at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.
The Antikythera Mechanism was lost over 2,200 years ago when the freighter carrying it sank off the coast of the small Greek island of Antikythera (which lies between Kythera and Crete).
The mechanism was initially discovered in 1901 when Greek sponge divers found an embedded greenish lump. they took the mechanism, which they believed to be a rock, to archaeologist Valerios Stais at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Over the decades that followed, the site was plundered, trampled by explorers, and in 1976, famed French explorer Jean-Jacques Cousteau inadvertently destroyed much of what remained of the ship’s hull.
Initially no one knew that he wanted the bundle. two millennia had eaten away at the ship and its cargo. Stais’s cousin, Spyridon Stais, a former mathematician, was the first to identify the gears in the mechanism.
It was only with the development of advanced X-ray technology and the collaboration of numerous people (from Cousteau to modern historians of science such as Alexander Jones) that the heavily corroded rock revealed itself as a technologically advanced calculator.
How advanced? the Mechanism of the II century BC. C. could do basic math, calculate the movements of the sun and moon, track the movements of the constellations and planets, and predict eclipses and equinoxes.
It contains more than thirty hand-crafted gears, dozens more than the average Swiss luxury watch. It may not have the power of an iPhone, but it’s more than just a calculator.
In 2012, almost 50 years after Cousteau’s excavations, a new team of underwater archaeologists re-examined the site. They uncovered hundreds of previously unnoticed artifacts, including bronze and marble statues, furniture, coins, and a sarcophagus lid.
But last year, at the bottom of the sea, they discovered something else: a corroded and encrusted disk about 8 cm in diameter. X-ray analysis has revealed that the disc bears an engraving of the zodiac sign taurus, the bull.
the discovery of a piece of the world’s oldest analog computer would be a huge and remarkable discovery on its own terms.
But it has additional significance in what it can tell us about the development of the field of archeology itself.
As Sarah Bond, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, told the Daily Beast: “The Antikythera Mechanism is an important object in the historical record of ancient technology, but it is also a prism to follow the development of archeology as a professional field… It reveals the advanced astrological instruments created and used by ancient engineers, but the protracted nature of underwater digging reveals archaeological advances in scanning, 3D modeling, and many other sophisticated approaches to reconstructing and analyzing ‘the computer’” . Elsewhere, Bond has written about the invisible work of the divers who participated in the risky job that discovered the original Mechanism.
Other scholars have expressed concern that the discovery of the new record is being sensationalized.
On social media, David Meadows and Michael Press have rightly pointed out that the year-old discovery is only making headlines because of the sensational claim that it belongs to the Antikythera Mechanism.
It’s hard to say precisely what this new piece is; it could be part of the original Antikythera Mechanism or part of a second, similar device.
the presence of the bull engraving suggests that it may have predicted the position of the constellation of taurus, but it is difficult to say.
As scientific study continues, the discovery has drawn attention both to the existence of this ancient “calculator” and to its amazing history.