Astrolavos

The Anticethira artifact “astrolavos”, currently in exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, was discovered by sponge fishers at a ship wreckage (65 BC) site near Anticethira, Greece, in the Easter of 1900. It was mostly studied by the Englishman Derek Price (1922-1983), Professor of History of Science at Yale University, in subsequent collaboration with Charalambos Karakalos of the "Demokritos" National Center for Scientific Research in Greece.

Found in a wooden box of dimensions 16.5x31.8x9 cm, the astrolavos was a complex cogwheel system made of brass that provided information about the movements of the sun, the moon, and the planets of the zodiac. A disc of 12 subdivisions that referred to the 12 constellations of the zodiac cycle and a ring pointing to the months of the year lay on the front side of the artifact. Two disks, one over the other, were located on the backside of the artifact. The upper disk had 4 rings pointing to various planets rising and setting, while the one below had 3 rings pointing to the various phases, ascensions, and descensions of the moon. A cogwheel on the right side of the artifact was used for chronological data entry. Instructions for the operation of the machine were imprinted on the box and the surfaces of the disks. Cogwheels were widely used during the Hellenistic historical period. In the specific case of the astrolavos, however, they were used as a “differential” system, reminiscent of the “analytic” and “differential” machines constructed by Charles Babbage in the 19th century. In one of his papers, Price states that the Anticethira artifact is “… the ancestor of the present plethora of scientific hardware.”

A paper entitled “An ancient Greek computer” was published by Price in the journal Scientific American in June 1959. Another, more detailed, paper entitled “Did the Greeks invent the portable computer?” was published in a special issue of the Micro magazine (IEEE Computer Society) in February 1984.