Was the First Computer Built By the Greeks 2,000 Years Ago?

Was the First Computer Really Built By the Greeks 2,000 Years Ago?

A strange box found over a century ago in the sea off the shore of Greece has been the subject of postulation and debate for decades. Now researchers say they think they know what it is.
By Carol Johnson

In 1901, divers off the coast of Greece recovered a gear-filled box from a 2,000-year-old shipwreck on the floor of the Mediterranean sea. The mysterious device, about the size of a shoebox, came to be known as the Antikythera Mechanism.

Theories about the origins and purpose of the mechanism have ranged from the scientific to the surreal. "Some people thought it came from outer space," said Yanis Bitsakis, a physicist at Athens University. "And since the mechanism has Greek writing on it, the other ridiculous story is that Greeks themselves came from outer space and brought the mechanism with them."

More logical suppositions included the theory that the box was a clock or a device used for navigation. But most interpretations of the purpose of the box have relied on either very flimsy evidence or pure imagination.

Now, an international team of researchers claim that they finally have discovered what the box was built for. Last year, scientists built an eight-ton 'microfocus' X-ray machine around the box and used it to take three-dimensional scans of the mechanism. The scans revealed ancient inscriptions and complicated gear trains inside the box, which no researcher had ever seen before in the century since the Antikythera Mechanism was found.

Bitsakis has been spending up to 15 hours a day deciphering the inscribed text inside the mystery object. "It's an all-in-one astronomical device," says Bitsakis. "In a single machine, the designer tried to put all the knowledge he had about astronomical phenomena."

Researchers say the 30 or so bronze gears and 2,000 inscribed Greek characters in the mechanism helped ancient Greek scientists track the cycles of the solar system and calculate the motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets. According to Cardiff University astrophysicist Michael Edmunds, the box technically qualifies as a computer. "To build one of these is not trivial," he says. "It shows how technically advanced the Greeks were."