Reaching for the Stars: The World's First Computer From the Greeks

08/02/2012 01:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2012
  • Evaggelos Vallianatos Scholar and author of several books, including , "Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA" (with McKay Jenkins)

In early 1900, Greek sponge-fishers discovered the remnants of an ancient ship full of statues -- horses, men, women and vases. The ship was buried in the waters of a tiny Aegean island known as Antikythera.

Of several treasures, the most precious was a very small piece of metal with gears dated from 150 to 100 BCE.

The shipwreck probably happened in the middle of the first century BCE. The Roman ship was sailing from Rhodes to Rome. It was full of looted Greek treasure: more than 100 bronze and marble statues, amphorae and coins.

One statue, the Antikythera Youth, is a bronze masterpiece of a naked young man from the fourth century BCE.

The decipherment of the Antikythera Mechanism starts with Derek de Solla Price, a British physicist and historian of science teaching at Yale University. In 1974, he left us a scientific record of his assessment. This was Gears from the Greeks, a masterful account of how he decoded the Greek computer.

Price spent 16 years studying the intricacies of the Greek device. He reported that the Antikythera Mechanism was "one of the most important pieces of evidence for the understanding of ancient Greek science and technology."

He explained why:

The complex gearing of the Antikythera Mechanism shows a more precise picture of the level of Greco-Roman "mechanical proficiency" than that coming out of the surviving textual evidence: this "singular artifact," he said of the Antikythera Mechanism, "the oldest existing relic of scientific technology, and the only complicated mechanical device we have from antiquity quite changes our ideas about the Greeks and makes visible a more continuous historical evolution of one of the most important main lines that lead to our civilization."

Yes, science from the Greeks is a straightforward highway to us. It materializes in technology like the one found in the lump of metal with gears. And that laptop-like device, after a tortuous path, became Western technological culture.

Price described the differential gear of the Antikythera Mechanism as the landmark of the computer's high tech nature. This was the gear that enabled the Antikythera Mechanism to show the movements of the sun and the moon in "perfect consistency" with the phases of the moon. "It must surely rank," Price said of the differential gear, "as one of the greatest basic mechanical inventions of all time."

After some 1,500 years, the differential gear ended up in cars in late nineteenth century.

"Wheels from carriages and carts survive from deep antiquity," he said, "but there is absolutely nothing but the Antikythera fragments that looks anything like a fine gear wheel or small piece of mechanism. Indeed the evidence for scientific instruments and fine mechanical objects is so scant that it is often thought that the Greeks had none."

Price died in 1983.