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Antikythera Mechanism


Imagine discovering a hidden room in a European medieval castle. As you open the room, you find an iPhone sitting on the table–invented in 1000 A.D. This analogy describes the discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism in 1900 A.D. This technologically baffling device is believed to have been created around 60-80 B.C., shortly before it was sunken in a Roman shipwreck off of the island of Antykythera near Greece. Though the device was badly corroded and many parts completely deteriorated over the 2000 years it was submerged in the sea, its secrets have recently been unlocked by researchers using X-ray and Gamma ray analysis.

The Antikythera Mechanism (as it has been titled) is believed to be the first computer ever invented since it is the oldest complex calculator created in ancient times. This device is an astronomical calculator that accurately tracks the movements of the sun and moon and predicts eclipses, lunar cycles and seasons. It is important to understand that this device was amazingly advanced for its time. It was so advanced that no other device with similarities in mathematics and engineering was invented for over another 1000 years when a much simpler and much larger eight-geared lunar/solar calculator was built into an astrolabe by Al-Biruni. (The pager compared to the iPhone.)

The device is the size of a shoebox (32 L x 16 W x 10 D) in centimeters. It was originally comprised of over 32 bronze gears (exact number unknown) housed in a wooden box with faceplates that showed the current state of the astronomical bodies it tracked. The device’s gears contained complex 3-dimensional gear trains. (Not just gears, but gear trains that moved in 3-dimensions with an accuracy of fine timepieces engineered today.)

The mathematics involved in the gear arrangements and the detailed engineering and manufacturing of the parts was far beyond the capabilities of the Greeks of the first century B.C. Experts are baffled to explain how perfectly every one of the teeth of the gears (thousands of gear teeth) are so perfectly shaped and spaced. It is literally impossible for such detailed manufacturing to be achieved by hand. If a contemporary metal shop were commissioned to build this device today, the craftsmen would have to use a computer to draw the forms, and a precision CNC cutter to machine the parts from bronze. How then could the Greeks of the first century achieve this amazing feat when they were still using crude iron and bronze tools? CNC routing wasn’t developed unitl the early 1900’s. A.D. The minute intricacies of the gear systems in the Antikythera Mechansim are like that of a fine Swiss watch–far beyond the capabilities of the ancient Greeks. Some critics cite large-scale Greek gear systems used in Greek architecture of this time as proof the Greeks possessed this engineering ability. However, that would be like comparing an abacus to the iPhone.

The Antikythera Mechansim’s function was revealed in the early 21st century. It is believed the device’s owner would turn dials on the device (or wind a spring-loaded system like a clock) and then read the faceplates to determine the lunar months and synodic months (the period between new moons) and know when solar and lunar eclipses would occur for decades to come. Imagine, having the ability to predict solar and lunar events during a time when the heavens were regarded as the birthplace of the gods. An enterprising being that possessed this device could feign control over the heavens and literally be a god on Earth.

While many experts try to offer explanations for how this device could have been conceived, designed and built, all their concepts fail the tests of logic. There is only one possible explanation. Beings with advanced knowledge of astronomical bodies, mathematics and precision engineering tools created the device or gave the knowledge for its creation to someone during the first century B.C. But the knowledge was not recorded or wasn’t passed down to anyone else.

Above: Original corroded remains of the Antikythera Mechansim currently on display at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, Greece. Even after more than 2000 years since its creation, this complicated device looks to be more like a fine Swiss watch than the invention of first century Greeks. 

Above: Contemporary 3D computer generated model of the complex gear system witin the Antikythera Mechanism. 

Below: Diagram of the advanced gearing system

Above: Artist’s conception of the device in its original state. The front side displayed instructions for use. The primary hand spun to show day and night as it moved around the celestial clock positions.

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Timeline of Mathematical Achievements

Leading Up To Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion (Required for the gearing math found in the Antikythera Mechanism.)

20,000 BC

Arithmetic – Counting abstract objectsThe invention of arithmetic provides a way to abstractly compute numbers of objects.

3500 BC

Cuneiform – Written Language. A central event in the emergence of civilization, written language provides a systematic way to record and transmit knowledge.

2500 BC

Sumerian Calendar – Organizing timeThe first known calendar system is established, rounding the lunar month to 30 days to create a 360-day year.

1700 BC

Babylonian Mathematical Tables – Babylonians make tables of multiplication, reciprocals, squares, cubes, and square and cube roots.

500 BC

Babylonian Astronomy – Using arithmetic to predict the heavens. The Babylonians introduce mathematical calculation as a way to track the behavior of planets and a few other systems in nature.

500 BC

Pythagoras – Numbers are the key to natureThe Pythagoreans promote the idea that numbers can be used to systematically understand and compute aspects of nature, music, and the world.

300 BC

Euclid – Organizing mathematical truthEuclid writes his Elements, systematically presenting theorems of geometry and arithmetic.

100 BC

Antikythera Mechanism – A machine for computing. A gear-based device that survives today is created to compute calendrical computation.

150 BC

Ptolemy – Formulas for the heavens. Ptolemy’s Almagest introduces epicycles to describe the detailed motion of planets.

The Moon’s move­ment isn’t con­stant. It speeds up and slows down. This is because its orbit isn’t exactly cir­cu­lar. Instead it’s slightly egg-shaped. The point fur­thest from the earth is the apo­gee and the point closest to the Earth is the peri­gee. When it’s near the apo­gee it travels slowly, but when it moves closer to the Earth it picks up speed until it passes peri­gee and then it slows down again. This is called the first lunar anom­aly. The dif­fer­ence is notice­able by the naked eye, if you’re will­ing to make sys­tem­atic obser­va­tions. This is all simply explained by Kepler’s Laws of Plan­et­ary Motion. There’s a small prob­lem. Kepler used ellipses. You can’t use ellipt­ical gears. The point of gears is that they must have inter­mesh­ing teeth. An ellipt­ical gear would lose con­tact with the driv­ing gear as its axis changed. Instead it seems that the mech­an­ism used two gears, one slightly off-axis from the other. The rota­tion was con­nec­ted by a pin-and-slot arrange­ment, so that the one gear wouldn’t turn at quite the same rate as the other gear. The on-axis gear can then be turned reli­ably by the drive gears, while the motion of the moon can driven by the off-axis gear. So you have a device that can track the sider­eal, syn­odic and anom­al­istic months, all while the Earth is spin­ning round the Sun. If that’s caus­ing your head to spin you might want to skip the next paragraph.

There’s another prob­lem. The lunar anom­aly describes the Moon’s travel from one apo­gee to the next. This apo­gee is also rotat­ing around the earth. If the apo­gee is in Aries then two and a bit years later it will be in Can­cer, and another two and a bit years to move into Libra until it too has trav­elled through the zodiac over about nine years. So now we have a device which tracks the Moon around the Earth, and its phases and it’s vari­able speed and vari­ations in that vari­ab­il­ity, while also keep­ing track of the Sun’s pos­i­tion, poten­tial lunar and solar eclipses and inter­cal­a­tion cycles so you know when to stick an extra month in to keep the lunar months in step with the solar year round gears, some moun­ted slightly off axis to cre­ate a pseudo-sinusoidal vari­ation using cir­cu­lar gears to replace ellipses. If you have funny feel­ing near the back of your head right now, that’s prob­ably your brain try­ing to crawl out of your ears. The Anti­kythera Mech­an­ism is insanely com­plex.

-Professor Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University

How Advanced Is This Device?


Leonardo Fibonacci – Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci introduces Hindu-Arabic numerals in Europe. Discover of Fibonacci sequence.


Franciscus Vieta – A notation for symbolic algebra. Franciscus Vieta writes mathematical formulas with letters as variables, using vowels for unknowns and consonants for parameters.


Johannes Kepler – 3 Laws of Planetary Motion. The complex mathematic formulas describe the eliptical orbits of the planets including accurate anomolies. (Required Math In the Antikythera Mechanism).








Below: Cross section view of the gear system.

Note: Experts believe the other planetary gear wheels existed at one time but have not been recovered. (Not shown in this model)