World’s first computer may be older than thought

The Antikythera mechanism, an astonishingly complex device of gears found in a shipwreck full of Greek loot by sponge divers in 1900, has never been precisely dated.

The wreck itself is dated to between 70 and 60 BC, but the items in the ship’s cargo range from 340 BC for the Antikythera Ephebe (a bronze statue of a handsome youth) to contemporary 1st c. BC common objects.

It was Yale professor Derek de Solla Price who in 1974 first argued convincingly that the inscriptions on the gears suggested a 87 BC date. Since then, Price’s dating has been considered the standard, but one Alexander Jones thinks it may be a hundred or so years older than that.

[T]here are six sets of games named on the [Olympiad] dial, five of which have been deciphered so far. Four of them, including the Olympics, were major games known across the Greek world. But the fifth, Naa, was much smaller, and would only have been of local interest.

The Naa games were held in Dodona in northwestern Greece, so Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York has suggested that the mechanism must have been made by or for someone from that area.

Intriguingly, this could mean the device is even older than thought. The inscriptions have been dated to around 100 BC, but according to Jones the device may have been made at latest in the early second century BC, because after that the Romans devastated or took over the Greek colonies in the region, so it’s unlikely that people would still have been using the Greek calendar there.

Intriguing notion. It’s speculative, of course, but certainly plausible.

For more about this calculator par excellence and its Olympic connection, see this video from the journal Nature: