More than a century ago, back in the year 1900, a team of Greek divers made an astonishing discovery. While diving for sponges, they found a bronze hand, sticking out from the sand. Promptly informing the Greek authorities, soon further dives were conducted, and the wreckage of an ancient Roman shipwreck was uncovered. Just off the coast of the island of Antikythera, between mainland Greece and Crete, the ship was almost certainly traveling along the old naval route between Asia Minor and Italy. Among its treasures were more than 200 amphorae, bronze and marble statues, oil lamps, pottery, unique glassware and various coins and jewels. And, relatively unnoticed, an extremely fragile mechanism, which instantly started to disintegrate as soon as it was pulled out of the water. Looking like a lump of corroded bronze and wood, it was transported to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. There researchers concluded it was an astronomical clock, deemed to be too advanced for the technology of that period. It was dismissed as an anomaly and assumed that at some later period in time it dropped to the ocean floor and was at the site of the wreck by pure accident.
For 50 years no one took interest in the strange object, until Professor Derek J. de Solla Price of the Yale University started his research in 1951. Together with a nuclear physicist, Charalampos Karakalos, they performed a series of X-ray and gamma-ray images and discovered that the mechanism was much more complex than previously imagined. They dated it to 87 BC, which matched findings of the famous Jacques Cousteau, who also visited the wreck in 1976. It was made of at least 30 gears and was precisely engineered. Based on the most advanced theories of astronomy and mathematics of that time, the complex clockwork allowed the user to compute exactly how the sky would have looked like for each and every day of the year. Using modern 21st century scanning tools, today we have detailed three-dimensional models, which show its intricate inner workings.
A multitude of interconnecting gears within the mechanism was used to move a series of dials. One, on the front, showed the 365 days of the year, according to the Egyptian solar calendar. Within it there was a second, denoting the twelve zodiac signs. By turning a handle on the side, the ancient sailors and astronomers could see for each day where the exact position of the Sun and Moon would be. A small rotating sphere indicated the different Lunar phases. Another dial on the back denoted the Metonic cycle – a repeating period of 19 years, showing the Lunar and Solar cycles. A final dial underneath it showed when the eclipses of the Sun and Moon would occur. It even indicated which city was supposed to host future Olympic Games. Inscribed on the side of the mechanism was an instruction manual. The form of the letters, as well as the vocabulary, which was used, are both typical of the 1st century BC, again confirming its age. Several antique writers, Cicero among them, have mentioned such devices, but to date this is the only one we know of. Today the Antikythera mechanism is considered to be the first analog computer in existence and it serves as a testament to how sophisticated and advanced the Ancient World actually was.
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