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Antikythera Mechanism (Brett Seymour / WHOI)

Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism

If future civilisations found our computers some 2000 years from now, how would they go about figuring out how they worked and what they were for? That’s the problem that faced researchers when they set out to uncover the secrets of the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2000-year-old ‘computer’ found in a shipwreck off the Greek coast.

What they have discovered is remarkable – not least because they didn’t start out with a working device, but instead just various pieces, many heavily encrusted, after it had virtually disintegrated while on the bottom of the Mediterranean. Through painstaking multidisciplinary research and reconstruction, researchers have found that the Antikythera Mechanism was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses in the future, testifying to both the astronomical knowledge and technical abilities of whoever built the device. (Researchers have recently also figured out that It could be used to track a four-year cycle of athletic games of the time.)

The documentary below gives a wonderful insight into the entire process of the decoding of the Antikythera Mechanism and the insights that have consistently blown the minds of historians as we move toward a better understanding of its functions:

What we realised was that the ancient Greeks had built a machine to predict the future. It was an extraordinary idea, that you could take scientific theories of the time and mechanise them, to see what their outputs would be many decades hence. It was essentially the first time that the human race had created a computer.

Highly recommended, the entire documentary is absolutely fascinating!

For more insights into the Antikythera Mechanism, see Jo Marchant’s excellent Decoding the Heavens: A 2000-Year-Old Computer and the Century-long Search to Discover Its Secrets, and also the links below for more recent news on the continuing research.

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