Scientists decode guide to ancient Greek "computer".
By Megan Gannon Livescience.com June 28, 2016, 12:37 PM
Thanks to high-tech scanning, 2,000-year-old inscriptions on the Antikythera mechanism,
an ancient Greek "computer," can be read more clearly than ever before, revealing more
information about the device and its possible uses.
Ever since the first fragments of the device were pulled from a shipwreck off the coast
of the Greek island Antikythera in 1901, scientists and historians have been trying to
learn more about its purpose. The bronze astronomical calculator was about the size of
a shoebox, with dials on its exterior and an intricate system of 30 bronze gear wheels
inside. With the turn of a hand crank, the ancient Greeks could track the positions of
the sun and the moon, the lunar phases, and even cycles of
Greek athletic competitions.
"Before, we could make out isolated words, but there was a lot of noise --letters that were
being misread or gaps in the text," said Alexander Jones, a professor of the history of
science at New York University. "Now, we have something that you can actually read as ancient
Greek. We can tell what these texts were saying to an ancient observer."
Jones and his colleagues recently published a set of papers on the inscriptions in a special
issue of the
The newly filled-in bits of text have allowed Jones and his
colleagues to get a better idea of what the machine might have looked like in antiquity.
Inscriptions on the cover of the back face of the device, for instance, contain an inventory
of all of the dials and what they mean.
[See Images of the Newly Deciphered Antikythera
"That's where we get the key information that there was a full-blown
display of planets moving through the zodiac on the front," Jones said.
This display, which is now lost, had pointers with small spheres representing
the sun, moon and planets known at the time (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn)
arranged in a geocentric system with circular orbits around Earth, according
to the inscription on the back cover. Researchers had proposed the existence
of this feature before, but they never had any physical evidence for it, Jones said.
Sponge divers discovered the device in the wreckage of an ancient Greek vessel that
seems to have been headed to the western Mediterranean carrying commercial goods,
including high-end luxury objects, when it sank around 65 B.C. American and Greek
marine archaeologists are continuing to excavate the Antikythera wreck site. In their
latest expedition, which ended on June 11, the team found ceramic vessels, bits of
wooden furniture, marble statue fragments and gold jewelry, according to the Greek
Ministry of Culture. The researchers did not report finding any more pieces of the
"There's always the hope that more will come out of new dives," Jones said. For him, the
biggest unanswered question about the device is, what was it used for?
"We know what it did now pretty well, but why would someone want to have something like
this made?" Jones said. "For my part, I think this is something that is very likely to
have been made as an educational device, something that was not for research but for
teaching people about cosmology and all sorts of time-related things about our world."
Perhaps the operator would have understood how the wheels inside the device worked, but
to casual observers, the gear work would have been a mystery.
"Most people would have seen it as a closed box," Jones said. "For them, it must have
been a wonderful device."