The seeds of the digital revolution were planted with the invention of the transistor in 1947, which led to the integrated circuit in the late 1950s followed by the world’s first microprocessor in 1971 that later gave birth to the personal computer.
But according to archaeologists, the birth of the world’s first computer was much closer to the dawn of democracy than to the digital age.
The so-called Antikythera Mechanism has become known as the world’s first analogue computer after a century since its discovery and decades of scientific research, including the use of cutting-edge 21st century computer vision technology in order to truly understand what the original device looked like, how it operated and what it calculated.
It may be no match for modern laptop computers, which are fast, versatile, and built with digital brains, or processors that have more than a billion microscopic high-k metal gate transistors. By contrast, the Antikythera Mechanism is built with gears and moving mechanical parts more like wind-up watches than computers we know today.
Yet researchers who have studied the device say the Antikythera Mechanism would have been adept at calculating the movement of the sun, moon and five planets tracked by the Greeks. There was certainly no bios, firmware or software installed, but it did function like a calendar, and researchers explained to the international science journal Nature that the calendar was likely used to track the 4-year cycle of the ancient Olympic Games.
Scientist Leonidas Petrakis, a former director at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, recently wrote an article about the device for National Herald, a weekly publication for Greek-American news and culture.
“The mechanism is truly remarkable for the sophistication of its fabrication, miniaturization and complexity to a degree that did not appear in Europe again for 17 centuries until the advent of advanced clock making,” Petrakis wrote.
The Antikythera Mechanism is named after the Greek island in the Ionia Sea from which it was discovered in 1900 by sponge divers, who found a sunken Roman ship that contained an enormous booty of bronzes, glassware, jewelry and pottery as well as a peculiar looking glob of metal with matching shards.
The rusty clump of metal, about the size but bulkier than a modern netbook computer, remained shrouded in mystery for decades.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, when scientists really began to understand how the 82 original shards fit together. According to an article in Wired magazine, a scientist named Derek de Solla Price published his research in 1959 edition of Scientific America. He dated the mechanism to 100 BC and even created an early rudimentary replica of the original.
It took sophisticated X-ray and 3-D computer imaging technology to understand how it actually worked and what it was designed to do.
In 2005, a group of scientists started the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, which included researchers from universities in Cardiff, Athens and Thessaloniki and high-tech professionals from HP and X-Tek systems. They began using breakthrough technology to analyze the original materials and build an accurate replica.
Michael Wright, a former curator at the Science Museum in London, has re-created his version of the Antikythera Mechanism, which can be seen in this video from New Scientist.
Replica in action