Oldest Computer—The Antikythera Mechanism

  • Antikythera is the Greek island near where it was found.
  • It predicted lunar and solar eclipses, held a calendar, and signaled the next Olympic Games.
  • When scientists studied the device with x-rays, they discovered you could use it to track the sun, moon, and planets.
  • CT scans—the same procedure that might tell your doctor whether your appendix needs to come out–revealed tiny writing engraved on its parts, not exactly a built-in instruction manual, more like parts labels, but important clues to where it might have been made and what it was supposed to do—enough for scholars now to understand at least some of the workings.
"The first computer" found in shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera
The Antikythera mechanism on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0.

The Antikythera Mechanism was found with a 2000-year-old wrecked ship in 1902.  It’s the only one found, but perhaps something similar will turn up elsewhere to answer questions about when it was made, who made it, and did anyone, a thousand years ago, build anything like it?

This model of the Mechanism, built by science modeler Massimo Mogi Vicentini, is an attempt to show what its insides might have looked like 2000 years ago:

Mogi Vicentini via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5