The Antikythera Mechanism – the world’s first computer?

The Antikythera Mechanism is widely acclaimed as the world's first analog computer designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses. Recovered from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900 - 1901 the mechanism dates to the first century BC, but its origins are probably much older.

A television programme this week has revealed the amazing accuracy of this ancient device which could track the trajectory of the planets, predict future comets based upon a 223 month cycle, and cleverly took into account the moon's imbalance as it orbits and rotates around the earth. It would be over 1,000 years later before similar mechanisms would start to appear in Western Europe in the form of horological clocks.

As a history graduate I've always known about the Antikythera Mechanism but never really appreciated its sophistication or historical significance until now. For in an age when we regularly turn to science to seek out answers to the meaning of life and how the universe came about we often scorn the societal and technological advancements experienced across ancient civilisations.

What did our forebears really know? How did they build the pyramids? Did the ancients get to the Americas long before they were 'discovered' by Christopher Columbus in 1492? More intriguingly, had we skipped the Dark Ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire could we have invented the Internet back in 1066 when William the Conqueror was invading England?

Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera Mechanism

A tongue-in-cheek question, of course. I've never been overly impressed with 'if and buts' historians that suggest alternative courses in history that are simply a matter of conjecture. History is subjective interpretation and more often than not based upon the views of the conquered rather than those of the vanquished. Over the ages religions have also muddied the waters with their suppression of sacred texts, individual free thought and personal beliefs that might have challenged the political status quo.

For me, history is about exploring what really happened as opposed to what is reported to have happened. One of the clever 'benefits' of the Internet and social media is that governments, organisations and individuals are finding it more difficult to suppress the truth. Information leaks are everywhere, and each of us can design out our own trusted networks to help inform and enable us to make value judgements on those issues that we're interested in. The problem I have with information revelations (e.g. from Edward Snowden) is whether I really do need to know everything if I can't change it; whether lives are placed at risk unnecessarily; and whether the so-called free press is responsible and undertakes fair reporting.

And trusting the Press is almost as big a deal as trusting politicians these days! Social media networks are devaluing the former (daily newspaper readership is dropping year on year) and electronic voting will eventually see the abolition of elected assemblies as we all vote on the issues ourselves.

Now that's real democracy!

Understanding the past is key to exploring our future. Sir Isaac Newton, often regarded as the most influential scientist in history and most famous for discovering the Laws of Gravity made the poignant observation

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye sholders of giants".

In other words, this great man felt that he himself could not have achieved all that he did without having learned from past masters.

The Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera mechanism

Antikythera Mechanism (2007 Model) Click to Enlarge

Consider this, then. Many esoteric traditions around the world teach that mind came before matter. That the universe exploded out of a mental dimension, that the ancients were in tune with a virtual, 'spiritual' world that we cannot possibly understand today. But that actually we are returning to that deeper connection we'd thought lost through present day free thought and our mental ability to create new worlds in space - cyber space.

And in the same way the Victorians could never have foreseen the Internet Age, what can't we foresee today for tomorrow? Our ability to advance civilisation is only limited by our intellectual capability. Mind over matter. And the Antikythera Mechanism reminds us to take regular time out in order to evaluate the technological advancements we've achieved today e.g. big data and to use them effectively.

After all, we don't want to wait another 1,000 years before we reap the full benefits of the information society and digital economy!