Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

I found the most amazing story about an astronomical calculator that is the earliest discovered device known to contain an intricate set of gear wheels.This amazing calculator could add, multiply, divide and subtract. It could also align the number of lunar months with years and display where the sun and the moon were in the zodiac.

“The actual astronomy is perfect for the period,” said Professor Mike Edmunds, a professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University in Wales. “Our recent work has applied very modern techniques that we believe have now revealed what its actual functions were.”

This ancient device was manufactured at the end of the 2nd century BC and is astonishingly accurate. This device was more complex than any instrument created for the next 1,000 years, scientists said.

The calculator (pictured, right) was retrieved from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901 but its original purpose has remained elusive until now. It was originally fragmented into 82 brass pieces, but scientists from Britain, Greece and the United States reconstructed a model of it using high-resolution X-ray tomography. The resulting model revealed 37 gear wheels housed within a wooden case with inscriptions on the cover that described planetary movements.The team believe their discovery would cause scientists to think differently about the technological potential of the ancient Greeks.

“It could be described as the first known calculator,” said Edmunds. “What is extraordinary about the thing is [the ancient Greeks] were able to make such a sophisticated technological device and to be able to put that into metal,” he added.

Edmunds described the instrument as unique, saying there is nothing like it in the history of astronomy. Similar complicated mechanisms were not been seen until the appearance of medieval cathedral clocks much later. Francois Charette, of the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, said the findings, reported in the journal Nature, provide a wealth of data for future research.

“What was not quite so apparent before was quite how beautifully designed this was,” he marveled. “That beauty of design in this mechanical thing forces you to say ‘Well gosh, if they can do that what else could they do?”‘


Cited story.

Image source.


  1. #1 MartinDH
    November 29, 2006

    I heard about this on NPR’s “All Things Considered” this evening. The report mentioned that Cicero had described a similar contraption that had been brought out at the end of a feast to amuse the guests. Speculation to its use was either a rich man’s plaything and/or something to aid astrological calculations.

  2. #2 John Wilkins
    November 30, 2006

    The Antikythera mechanism was probably an astrolabe – used for navigation. See

    de Solla Price, D. (1974), “Gears from the Greeks: The Antikythera Mechanism — a Calendar Computer from ca. 80 BC”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 64 (7):1-70.

  3. #3 Ktesibios
    November 30, 2006

    The calculator (pictured, right) was retrieved from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901 but its original purpose has remained elusive until now.

    The “its original purpose has remained elusive until now” part is questionable. There’s a description of this device and a conclusion about its purpose which is essentially the same as in the article in L. Sprague de Camp’s The Ancient Engineers, which was first published in 1964.

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