There is no need to present the Antikythera mechanism yet again. Enough has been published on the peculiarities of this remarkable wonder of Antiquity. In a few words, the mechanism, discovered by sponge fishermen in 1901 off the Antikythera island, was probably built, according to the most recent estimates, in 205 BC, probably in Corinth or in one of its colonies, Syracuse (home of the school of Archimedes) coming to mind. It sank along with the ship that transported it and a cargo of amphorae and bronze statues during a storm hypothetically en route to Rome. The mechanism was dubbed the “first computer of the Ancient world.” It was indeed a complex mechanism comprising 30 meshing bronze gears designed to predict lunar and solar eclipses (most likely using Babylonian astronomical predictions), all the while reproducing on a dial the movement of the planets and completed by a Corinthian-style calendar marking the four Panhellenic athletic events—all of this put into motion by spinning a single crank. So accurate was the mechanism that the engineers even took into consideration the elliptical orbit of the earth around the sun. The fineness of the toothed gears observed on the mechanism was not to be seen again until the Renaissance. It is worth noting that mechanical astronomical clockworks such as the Antikythera mechanism were still produced into Late Antiquity: a model, albeit simpler, is known from the 6th century.[i]
This is not what will concern us here, however. The Antikyhtera mechanism has, as we have said above, been nicknamed the first computer of the world and it creates in us, people of the 21st century, a justified sense of wonder at ancient technological ability and, more generally, at human capabilities. We modern people fancy (once again rightly) how advanced the Ancients were, a thought that often (but this time wrongly, as we will see below) leads to this one: that we, people of modern times, have not invented anything, but simply continued and built upon the achievements of past ages. The comparison with a modern computer, while accurate (the mechanism is a calculating device just as much as a modern computer) creates a false sense of proximity and continuity between the ancient and the contemporary worlds. Quite the opposite. Because what is involved in such things, as with all material culture, is more than just about the machines themselves, but also, and perhaps more significantly, about the mindset and the philosophical outlook that produced them. A philosophical study of technology will reveal the differences between the ancient mechanism and its modern, electronic counterparts.
Let us observe the Antikythera mechanism. It is made up of interdependent gears activated by a hand crank and thereby calculates and predicts certain astronomical phenomena shown on circular dials by rotating pointers. The whole complexity of it is contained in a box. In other words, the mechanism is a closed, self-contained system.[ii] Unlike modern computers, it is not connected to another such system or to external flows of data. In fact, interconnectivity to external flows of data is the raison d’être of modern computers. A free-standing computer not connected to the larger and ever growing network has no purpose; it is an absurdity. Unlike the Antikythera mechanism, a modern electronic computer must not only be fed with external data sent by other, similar machines connected to it (the World Wide Web), it also needs to spit out its own data back into the wider world of data. Their Ancient Greek analog counterpart needed no such openness.