The world’s oldest computer and the Antikythera challenge

When we think about the first computers to produce useful information for mankind, our mind usually goes to the 1940s: the conceptual Turing machine, the ENIAC, vacuum tubes and punched cards…we may even bring to mind the early analog computers of the late 19th – early 20th century. What is not widely known is that the ancient Greeks used computers as early as 100 BC!

One such ancient computer is the Antikythera mechanism, named after a Greek island in the Aegean Sea where it was recovered in a shipwreck off the island’s coast. Dated to the second half of the 2nd century BC, the mechanism contained at least 30 gearwheels as well as axles and other components of which 7 large fragments and 75 minor pieces have survived. The Antikythera mechanism was used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, kept an accurate calendar of many years, and displayed the dates of the Pan-Hellenic games, which included the Olympic Games and were held in various locations in Ancient Greece. It cannot be said whether the mechanism retrieved in the Antikythera shipwreck was “one-of-its-kind” or if other such contraptions were in use in the Hellenistic period.

The Antikythera Mechanism is kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece. I was fortunate enough to see the artefact in a travelling exhibition in Thessaloniki in 1997, the year in which the city was the Cultural Capital of Europe. What I did not know however before writing this piece was that a working replica of the Mechanism has been made out of… Legos! Fascinated by the device’s sophisticated technology, Andrew Carol, an Apple Software engineer, used Lego Technic pieces and a modular assembly system to produce a modern-day Antikythera Mechanism. By adapting the Mechanism’s gear ratios to Lego Technic standards, Carol produced a working machine with 110 gears and 7 differentials…in fact, his project has made quite a stir and requests have been made for his prototype to be produced as a Lego kit!

Further reading on the Antikythera Mechanism: The National Archaeological Museum of Greece, The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, Wikipedia
Technical details of Andrew Carol’s Lego version: Building Complex Machines Using LEGO

Mina Theofilatou
International Representative CSTA Board of Directors
Kefalonia, Greece