Antikythera Mechanism

In 1900, just off the coast of the small island of Antikythera, a group of sponge divers discovered the wreck of a Roman merchant vessel filled with Greek  treasure.  Among the bounty was a device with precisely engineered gear wheels—a completely astonishing revelation for ancient Greece. The device, known as the Antikythera Mechanism is thought be a sophisticated celestial calculating machine.

According to John Seabrook, writing in The New Yorker, “Evidence derived from coins, amphorae, and other items of the cargo eventually allowed researchers to fix a date for the shipwreck: around the first half of the first century B.C., a time when the glorious civilization of ancient Greece was on the wane, following the Roman conquest of the Greek cities.”(1)

“The Antikythera Mechanism would be remarkable even if it was a less clever thing than it is because there is so little like it physically preserved or even described in ancient books,” says Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in a recent report.(2) Indeed, technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks were built in Europe. (3)

“If it hadn’t been discovered when it was, in 1901, no one would possibly believe that it could exist because it’s so sophisticated,” adds Tony Freeth of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.(4) Seabrook concurs, “Looking back over the first fifty years of research on the Mechanism, one is struck by the reluctance of modern investigators to credit the ancients with technological skill. The Greeks are thought to have possessed crude wooden gears, which were used to lift heavy building materials, haul up water, and hoist anchors, but historians do not generally credit them with possessing scientifically precise gears—gears cut from metal and arranged into complex ‘gear trains’ capable of carrying motion from one driveshaft to another.

“In fact,” Seabrook continues, “there is evidence that earlier civilizations were much more technically adept than we imagine they were.  … As Peter James and Nick Thorpe point out in Ancient Inventions, published in 1994, some ancient civilizations were aware of natural electric phenomena and the invisible powers of magnetism (though neither concept was understood). The Greeks had a tradition of great inventors, beginning with Archimedes of Syracuse(c. 287-212 B.C.), who, in addition to his famous planetarium, is believed to have invented a terrible clawed device made up of large hooks, submerged in the sea, and attached by a cable to a terrestrial hoist; the device was capable of lifting the bow of a fully loaded warship into the air and smashing it down on the water—the Greeks reportedly used the weapon during the Roman siege of Syracuse around 212 B.C.; Philon of Byzantium (who lived around 200 B.C.) made a spring-driven catapult.

"Heron of Alexandria (who lived around the first century A.D.) was the most ingenious inventor of all. He described the basic principles of steam power, and is said to have invented a steam-powered device in which escaping steam caused a sphere with two nozzles to rotate. He also made a mechanical slot machine, a water-powered organ, and machinery for temples and theatres, including automatic swinging doors. He is perhaps best remembered for his automatons—simulations of animals and men, cleverly engineered to sing, blow trumpets, and dance, among other lifelike actions.” (5)  

Heron's "Marvellous Altar," seen below, is thought to have used convection currents from a central heat source to rotate a device in which figures "appear to dance." A similar device was invented by Ding Huan around 180 AD, in China. (Ding Huan's device, a multi-tiered hill-censer, also used convection currents to spin painted images of birds and other animals, creating the illusion of movement.) In its basic design, Heron's "Altar" may be a prototype of both the Roman projector featured in "Ancient Cinema" and Ding Huan's fantastic lamp.

Heron of Alexandria's "Marvellous Altar"

Prior to the discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism, skeptics often pointed to the lack of archaeological evidence for early Greek technology—after all, no trace of any of these marvelous machines had been found. But, as other scholars have pointed out, the lack of evidence isn’t really surprising. “No doubt, the machines eventually broke down, and, as the know-how faded, there was no one around who could fix them,” writes Seabrook, “so they were sold as scrap and recycled.”(6)  Very few technical drawings or writings remained, because, as Paul Keyser, a software developer at I.B.M. and the author of Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era, observes,‘the texts that survive tend to be the more popular texts—i.e., those that were more often copied—and textbooks, not the research works or the advanced technical ones.”(7)

But, if the Greeks did have greater technological sophistication than we think they did,” asks Seabrook, “why didn’t they apply it to making more useful things—time- and work-saving machines, for example—instead of elaborate singing automatons? Or is what we consider important about technology—which is, above all, that it is useful—different from what the Greeks considered worthwhile: amusement, enlightenment, delight for its own sake?  According to one theory, the Greeks, because they owned slaves, had little incentive to invent labor-saving devices—indeed, they may have found the idea distasteful. Archimedes’ claws notwithstanding, there was, as Keyser notes, cultural resistance to making high-tech war machines, because ‘both the Greeks and the Romans valued individual bravery in war.’ In any case, in the absence of any obvious practical application for Greek technology, it is easy to believe that it never existed at all.”(8)


1. Seabrook, John.  Fragmentary Knowledge, Was the Antikythera 
    Mechanism the World’s First Computer?,
 The New Yorker,  May 
    14, 2007.

2. The Antikythera Mechanism, Decoding an Ancient Greek 
Nature, Vol. 454, Issue 7204, July 31, 2008, 


4.      Natureop cit.

5.      Seabrook, op. cit.

6.      Seabrook, op. cit.

7.      Keyser, Paul. Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era.   
   Routledge, 2001.

8.      Seabrook, op. cit.

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