photo: the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek 'computer'

In 1900, Greek divers found the remains of a shipwreck off Antikythera, an island on the outer limits of the Aegean Sea. The ship, which some researchers estimate had sunk around 60 BC, contained treasures of diverse origins—jars, statues, coins, and other items from throughout the Mediterranean. But one find would garner particular attention: a shoebox-sized object made of metal and wood, inscribed with exceptionally small, barely legible Greek lettering.

The Antikythera mechanism, as it has come to be known, was an intricate and delicate device that some have called the world’s first computer. In the decades since its discovery, researchers have gained a better understanding of its myriad functions, among them timekeeping, astronomy, and, possibly, education.

But as scholars have been able to make sense of the Antikythera mechanism, they’ve also bumped into lasting questions. Where, and by whom, was the mechanism made? What was its purpose? Where was it going when it plummeted to the bottom of the sea, where it would stay for thousands of years?

Among the leading experts on the device is NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World Director Alexander Jones, whose recent book, A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World, explores the history and legacy of the artifact. NYU News spoke with Jones about what the mechanism could do, what philosophers may have thought about it, and why it took collaboration between scholars in different fields to crack some of its mysteries.

Why is the Antikythera mechanism important for the study of ancient civilizations?

Every once in a while, something turns up through archaeology which is unique, that tells us about the context of where it was made and the world that came up with the idea of making it. And the Antikythera mechanism is an extreme case of this. What you have is something that probably was never very common in ancient times, and what survived from the Greek and Roman world is such a tiny fraction of what existed then. It’s truly a unique object for us.  

photo: ISAW Director Alexander Jones

Can you explain what we know about how it worked?

This thing was sort of shoebox-sized with display dials, and there was some kind of a knob or a crank on the side which you would turn, and turning it would represent going forward or backward in time. The back side of the mechanism showed cycles of measuring time, like a calendar, and the cycle of the Olympic games and the other big Greek game competitions. And on the front side there was this kind of planetarium display that simulated the movements of the sun, the moon, and the five planets that people knew before telescopes—which is everything as far out as Saturn—as you see them from the Earth.

How technologically advanced was the mechanism?

In terms of the technology of the gears inside that made this thing do what it did, it was very sophisticated. You really have to go more than a thousand years later to late medieval Europe when these sorts of public astronomical clocks were being put up in cities. So technologically, this is the highest-end ancient Greek machine that survives in any form. We have books that mention things that are comparable, but work differently. There’s no record of anything else like this gear-work device.

Do you have an idea of how it was meant to be used?

What we found there is that on the dial there are month names of this particular local calendar, which is probably the place the mechanism was made for. But what it’s showing is that it was connecting science with civil and religious life, and showing the games. Why would an astronomical tool show you when the Olympic games are going to be held every four years? Because it’s not really a research tool at all—that’s my take on it. This is a teaching device that’s about showing how the world works, governed by time, and it’s the human world as well as the celestial world. And so you could basically teach a whole course on cosmology with something like this.

The mechanism is sometimes referred to as an early calculator. What kind of calculations could it perform?

It could do a certain kind of calculation, like where, more or less, the sun, moon, and planets are or were on a particular date. But it’s not super accurate. It’s a very expensive way of doing a job that you can do with the equivalent of a pencil and paper. But if you want to show the cosmos to people who are not specialists in astronomy, it would have had huge visual impact. It could speed time up: it takes Jupiter 12 years, and Saturn 30 years, to go once around the zodiac, so you’re going to have a long wait if you’re going out at night to show your pupils this kind of stuff. But with a machine like this, you can just whiz the thing around, and you’d see these pointers going around the dial, you’d see a little ball that represents the moon with its phases, and at the same time you have all these things on the back showing the calendar cycle, the games cycle, and so on. I could see this as being something that would really, really impress people with the coordination of the universe, which was something that at least some of the schools of ancient philosophy made a big thing about. Stoics, for example, described the universe as a kind of organism, like a living thing with a mind that caused the coordination of everything, including human lives. So for a Stoic philosopher, something like this would be just such a beautiful way of visualizing that conception. 

book cover: A portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism

Given that it communicates the passage of time, what does the mechanism tell you about ancient Greek timekeeping?

One of the things that they were dealing with in the Greek world in those days, because they had all these different calendars in different communities, was different times when years and months began. One of the things that we're now getting evidence for, and the mechanism is part of that, is communities coordinating their calendars—synchronizing them. So they still have different month names and beginnings of year, but they've designed it so that you can know what month it is in any other city of the cities that are synchronized. So for example, you would know when you need to set out if you want to go to one of these pan-Atlantic game festivals which might be some journey by sea, several hundreds of miles away. 

With the World Cup coming up, do we all take for granted how easy it is to synchronize global events like that?

People don't even bother buying wall calendars anymore because you just look at your phone to see what date it is. But in ancient Greece, if you traveled a distance as small as, say, from New York to Hoboken, you might find that they were using a different calendar when you arrived!

Now, if you’re going somewhere new, you might not leave the apartment without knowing exactly how long it'll take to get there.

Even now there are big differences between cultures. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, there were a lot of timekeeping devices. There are more than 500 surviving fragments of ancient sundials—but that doesn’t mean people lived by the clock the way we do. In the Mediterranean, you go to Greece and you make an appointment for 2:15, but that doesn’t mean that’s when you're actually going to meet. Because people are very relaxed about time. In the United States we’re very regimented people.

What has it been like to study the Antikythera mechanism?

In the earlier days it was very much a matter of one or two individuals at at time who got really interested in it, which is typical for ancient artifacts. You know, we don’t tend to have masses of people study the same thing unless it’s a very very famous object, which now the Antikythera mechanism is. But it’s become extremely collaborative. There have been lots of people coming from all kinds of backgrounds: I work with ancient Greek scientific texts, and that’s the main expertise I can bring. But then there are people who know more about clockwork devices, and there are people who are coming more from the modern astronomy side. We really couldn’t work on something like this as successfully as we have without all these different perspectives coming into play. So, one of the real joys of working on something like this is getting to communicate with people who have completely different ignorances and knowledges.