World’s first computer was the fusion of finest Greek and Middle Eastern scientific knowledge

Greek physicist Aris Dacanalis who is part of the team that has finally put together the puzzle of how the world’s first computer, the Antikythera Mechanism, worked, spoke to Neos Kosmos about what it would have taken to build such a machine in ancient times.

The announcement that an expert team had finally figured out how the world’s first (analogue) computer, the Antikythera Mechanism works, drew massive interest from around the globe.

Greek physicst Aris Dacanalis, who is part of the University of London team that has figured out how the 2,200 year-old device works, told Neos Kosmos that interest in what is called the world’s first analogue computer has been massive.

“Within a week of publication, I have had three interviews with Greek television channels. Over 130,000 people have read the online version of our paper (on Scientific Report published on 12 March) and over one million people have viewed the online documentary (on how the team pieced together evidence to make a viable working recreation of the machine.

Based on the astronomical knowledge of that time, the machine was used to calculate the orbits of the five known planets, of the moon as well as the remarkable feat of correctly calculating lunar and solar eclipses. The machine was accurate despite the fact that it was built on the premise that the earth was at the centre around which the planets and sun revolved.

“There has been worldwide interest from all quarters. People are interested in ancient technology,” said Mr Dacanalis whose work on the Antikythera Mechanism is the basis of his PhD.

READ MORE: Workings of Ancient Greek and world’s first computer unravelled by UK university team

He works three days a week as a physics and astronomy teacher at the Royal Masonic School for Girls just outside London and the rest of the time is dedicated to his work on the Antikythera Mechanism for his doctorate.

“I left Greece in 2015 in the midst of the economic crisis. I found work as a teacher in the UK and my wife pointed me to this in late 2016. It was very hard to get in. Up until last year I was teaching full time and that proved very demanding,” Mr Dacanalis said he registered to do his PhD in June 2018.

A third of the original of device was discovered in 1901 by sponge divers from Rimi near Rhodes 60 metres below the surface as part of the sunken wreck of a large Roman trading vessel. What the divers brought to the surface – 82 fragments of the original device including a large segment fused by sediment and 82 fragments – has exercised the best and brightest minds since then.

The discovery of the vessel included a treasure trove of fine Greek sculptures and bronzes, amphorae of Kos wine, high-quality glassware and furniture that Mr Dacanalis says was bound for Rome. At that time, the Roman republic was a rising power in the west and its aristocracy craved high quality Greek art and products.

Mr Dacanalis added that the device itself was probably intended for Epirus.

“The ship was Roman and at 27m long was one of the biggest vessels of its time. It was probably laden with heavy goods that shifted in a storm off Antikythera and led to the vessel rolling over and sinking.

At that time Antikythera was the southernmost extent of Greece. The divers who found the wreck, were from an island under Ottoman rule. Mr Dacanalis said that on their return to Rimmi, they consulted with the elders and decided to inform the Greek government and offer, at a price, to recover the haul for Greece.

“The recovery operation was supported by the Greek navy. The divers spent a year salvaging around the wreck,” said Mr Dacanalis.

He said the ship may have been sailing from Pergamum, Ephesus or Rhodes. However, he feels the device itself was probably made in Alexandria under the patronage of the Ptolemies.

“We are not sure when it was made it could have been in the Second or First Century BCE, we think the second century.”

It was an era of great political change when the Greek city state was giving way to the larger, wealthier Macedonian and later Hellenistic kingdoms that could afford to act as patrons for the makers of a object such as the Antikythera Mechanism.

READ MORE: Archaeologists find missing piece of 2,200-year-old Antikythera Mechanism

“The device could have been made by one person or a team of up to ten specialists. A Hellenistic kingdom like Egypt under the Ptolemies would have had the vast resources to pay for a highly specialised team that would have included an astronomer, a mathematician and highly skilled craftsmen who would have been engineers in their own right,” said Mr Dacanalis. “There was a tradition of engineering in Alexandria under the Ptolemies who were patrons of the arts and who also funded research.”

“To make such a device you would have needed a sponsor, the craftsmen and the money. The craft to make it is so specialised that if the craftsmen go, the craft dies.”

Other potential patrons could have been the Seleucids and Bactrian kingdoms who could afford the resources to create the device.

“No single culture had the means to make this device. This is the merging of two cultures – the marriage of Babylonian observations of the stars and the mathematical methods that they developed combined with Greek geometry and cosmological models.

“The research (on the Antikythera Mechanism) has taken away this modern arrogance that we today are at the peak of science. With this you see the same tradition of human intellect applied 4,000 years ago, the same wonder and questions about the world and the same longing to understand the universe.

“It was just that different means and ideas were applied.”

The next stage in the work on the device which is in part funded by the Leventis Group of Cyprus, will be to make a copy of the machine based on the group’s work to date but using ancient techniques to make the components for the working device. Archaeometallurgist Myrto Georgakopoulou of Cyprus will play a major role in that process.

“We will be investigating the tool making methods and techniques used then and this will take up to three years,” said Mr Dacanalis.

♦Click on this Antikythera Cosmos on Vimeo link to view the documentary on the work done by the University of London team.

READ MORE: Return to the Antikythera shipwreck as underwater archaeology resumes