Thu
Dec 18 2008 3:21pm

The Oldest Computer in the World (That’s Not My Desktop)

The Steampunk Workshop has nothing on the Greeks.

Wired reports that Michael Wright, a former curator of London’s Science Museum, has managed to singlehandedly reconstruct a replica of the Antikythera calculator, a machine dating back to at least 150 BC. (The Greeks were not messing around.)

Pieces of the machine were first discovered in ancient naval wreckage in 1902; scientists frowned and poked at them for 50 years before turning gamma rays on them, which helped cut through the barnacles to hint at the amazing machine that lay beneath.

 

The Antikythera mechanism, so called because no one wants to call it The Antikythera Device and hand out a free title for the next Bond movie, is a dictionary-sized collection of 37 dials that work together to calculate the movement of planetary bodies. It’s cross-platform (Greek AND Egyptian calendars!) and includes allowances for the erratic orbits of the five planets it tracks. It was used primarily as a calendar to gauge the timing of the next Olympic Games. Insert your own “guys and sports” joke here.

Below is a clip of Mr. Wright demonstrating the machine, in the middle of the world’s coolest-ever hobby room; it looks like the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Sebastian’s Blade Runner workshop had a kid.

To read up on the history of the Antikythera mechanism and get a little language practice, check out IL CALCOLATORE DI ANTIKYTHERA, an HTML labor of love reviewing the calculator’s history. Scroll down for English, or enjoy it en Italiano.

To nominate Michael Wright for the next Dr. Who, line up behind me.

[Image from the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.]

9 comments
Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
That is so super fabulously amazingly splendid that real words will not suffice and I must make things up and say that it is so utterly spardling and magnaetristically circumfulmonously pryntinculate that I could cry.

And I want one for Christmas.

And Wright is everything my geeky heart ever wanted a museum curator to be.

I'm going to be saying "antikythera mechanism" all day long now.
Gregory Manchess
2. GregManchess
I LOVE this thing. I want one on my drawing table. Man, those ancients were handy people, weren't they? Amazingly sophisticated for 2000 years ago. Cheers for Michael Wright! You're right, Jason...it's definitely magnaetristic....grandifulously prontifible...even.
Heather J.
3. Heather J.
I was going to say WOW but after all Jason's new words, WOW doesn't seem to cut it. I'll have to settle for amazingly fascinting!
R O T
4. rogerothornhill
Wow doesn't cut it? Because that's really what I'm thinking here. For sheer bloody wonder, a simple palindrome has to win out every time.

Any idea where I can get one? I have a few last-minute gifts to buy.
Jason Henninger
5. jasonhenninger
@4

Do you mean you want to buy a palindrome for Christmas?

How about a racecar?
Liza .
6. aedifica
I'm surprisingly disappointed. I mean, it's cool and all (I like astrolabes, too) but I don't see how this is a computer--it doesn't take input and perform calculations on it, it just moves around like a very complicated watch. *is sad*
Heather J.
7. Kevin Marks
A 76-year cycle? Was it tracking Halley's Comet?
Jason Henninger
8. jasonhenninger
additional cool:

http://www.blackphoenixalchemylab.com/s teamworks.html

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab has an "Antikythera Mechanism" scent.
Dustin Kurtz
9. Gursky
Are you allowed to adopt a person as your uncle? If so, I call dibs on Uncle Wright there. That short clip was disappointing though. I would have liked to see it highlight the ways in which the Device (cue dramatic music) accounts for orbital variations.

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