That One Time When Divers Were Exploring a 2nd Century B.C.E. Shipwreck and Discovered a Computer on Board

old-timey scuba suit

Imagine for a moment it’s the year 1900 and you’re the captain of a team of Greek sponge divers. Life is pretty good: You get to wear one of those creepy-looking diving suits to work every day, and you probably have a cool, old-timey name like “Dimitrios,” which will someday make for an excellent it’s-not-hipster-it’s-a-family-name name for your future great-great-great-grandchildren.

On this particular day, there’s a storm brewing near your usual dive spot, so you’ve decided instead to look for sponges just off the coast of the then-obscure island of Antikythera. Suddenly, one of your divers, Elias Stadiatis, urgently signals that he wants to be brought to surface. He frantically tells you of the horrific scene he just witnessed: heaps of rotting corpses lying on the sea bed 45 meters below.

Ah, you think, this Elias guy must have surfaced too quickly. He’s probably just drunk from nitrogen poisoning.  But you decide to go have a look anyway, so you dive on down to the scene of the massacre. Ah no, this Elias guy wasn’t hallucinating after all, you realize. He’s just an idiot.

You casually grab an arm from one of the hundreds of bronze statues lying about the shipwreck you’ve just discovered and bring it to surface so you can troll that dumbass Elias with it and also notify the appropriate historical authorities. Researchers soon recover hundreds of invaluable artifacts, including statues such as the Philosopher and the Youth of Antikythera (ca. 340 BC).

Oh, and also a computer. They found a 2,000-year-old computer on board.

It wasn’t even noticed until two years after the wreck’s initial discovery. While other researchers were busy investigating the more obvious treasures on board, archaeologist Valerios Stais became interested in a crumbling wooden box containing a peculiar-looking clump of bronze. Soon Stais noticed that the bronze device was in fact a complex system of enmeshed gears and wheels and that it was inscribed with instructions written in Koine Greek. He proposed that the device might be an early “astrolabe,” or mechanical astronomical clock — a theory that was roundly dismissed at the time, since technological artifacts approaching its complexity and workmanship did not appear again until the development of mechanical astronomical clocks in Europe in the fourteenth century.

It wasn’t until decades later that historians eventually came around to the remarkable conclusion that, yes, the Ancient Greeks had in fact created the world’s first analog computer sometime between 100 and 205 B.C.E. Knowledge of this technology was somehow lost at some point and forgotten until its rediscovery over a thousand years later. Researchers now believe that Greek scientists designed the Antikythera mechanism for astrological and calendrical purposes. The system of 30+ interconnected gears was capable of highly accurate predictions of astronomical positions and eclipses, and was even relied upon in determining the cycles of the ancient Olympic Games.

Check out the fascinating book Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-long Search to Discover Its Secrets to learn more about this remarkable discovery.