The World’s First Computer

Are you ready to be amazed and astounded? OK I may be overstating it a tad. But everyone loves a good mystery and this one is certainly up there with the best. In 60 BC, a Roman ship sailed on a voyage. Where it came from and where it was going to nobody knows. But somewhere between Greece and Crete, it ran into a storm and sank. And for more than two thousand years the treasures it carried faded into history. Entombed in the sandy bottom of the ocean. But you know what? This story really begins 100 years ago. That’s when a group of sponge divers saw a spooky looking hand sticking out of the silt. It was in an area off the island of Antikythera in the Aegean sea at a depth of 75 meters.

The hand was part of an ancient statue. These sponge divers could only spend a short amount of time on the bottom because of the depth but they managed to collect a treasure trove of artifacts. It was an amazing but eclectic collection of bits and pieces. There were bronze and marble statues, jewellery, glass and coins. The statues were beautifully crafted and life-like despite the ravages of time and the sea. The glassware crafted to an exacting standard and brightly colored. The treasure trove could best be described as the sum of many parts but not the whole. Very few of the items were complete. And of course that has led to much speculation about what kind of ship this was. For example, was it a treasure ship making a delivery to a King or a High Priest? Was it a plunder ship carrying the spoils and trophies of war? Or, was it just laden with an assortment of trinkets no longer wanted and destined for sale in some distant market?

But there was one item discovered that at first glance looked like a corroded lump of bronze cogs and wheels. Because it was bronze, it survived well in the sea but it didn’t look like anything anyone had every seen before. A lot of years passed before scientists decided to take a closer look at the object to see if they could identify it.

The first job was to get it X-rayed. And when they did that it looked way more complicated than they first thought. There were wheels within wheels. But what exactly was it? It slowly dawned on scientists that what they were looking at was in fact one of the most sophisticated devices ever discovered from ancient times. Forget about Apple and Microsoft. What they were looking at was the world’s first computer. It was an analog computer that did calculations. As far as anyone knows, this is the only example of its kind anywhere. But what did it actually do? The scientists finally determined it was an ancient timepiece. A timepiece, that worked as an astronomical calculator. A calculator, or mechanical device, that predicted the movement of the stars and the planets. As one astrophysicist said: the device makes mechanical what has been known for centuries about astronomical cycles. Those cycles predict eclipses by the moon and the sun and they have been used to produce a workable calendar. This hand-cranked device was more than likely used to predict which city was due to host the Olympic Games as well as to track the movement of the planets for prophecies and religious ceremonies

Just to put this into context. We are talking 60 BC. The kind of skill and complexity needed to manufacture it did not become evident until the 14 Century.This was ahead of its time by a considerable margin.Centuries. The feeling is that the device probably belonged to a wealthy person who used it for a bit of fun. The scientific community is very excited because they believe they only have half the story. The other half of the device, they believe, is still lying at the bottom of the Aegean sea waiting to be found. So in all honesty, you could say scientists still don’t fully understand how complicated this device could potentially be until they discover the rest of it. One set of gears and cogs doesn’t match the rest so there is clearly more to come.

But as time goes on scientists are learning more and more about the device, which has been called the Antikythera mechanism. Some of the bronze work contains inscriptions. One word stands out. It is the Greek word for Cosmos. Scientists believe another metal plate may actually contain an instruction manual for using the device. It details different gear settings.

But one of the great ironies of this discovery is that true cutting edge technology has now been invented for the express purpose of discovering the rest of this ancient example of high tech wizardry and whatever else might be lurking at the site. A $1.7 million diving suit, which acts like a wearable submarine, has been developed so that an archeologist can use it to explore the wreck site. There are pedals at the feet of the suit to allow the wearer to literally fly through the water powered by thrusters built into the suit’s backpack. The suit’s arms allow for free movement and instead of hands, objects will be recovered using mechanical pincers. The suit has breathing and communication systems and a carbon dioxide scrubber, which means the wearer can stay at depth for an extended time

The whole expedition will cost $3 million and, is being partly sponsored by a Swiss watchmaker. I guess they are also curious about what makes this device tick if you will forgive my punditry.

And now a new search will begin to find the rest of the mechanism.Scientists are certain that it’s down there somewhere. It’s only when they discover this missing second piece of the device that scientists will truly know what they are dealing with. At the risk of talking it up this could become one of the most significant archeological discoveries of the 21st Century.