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If it does math, it’s a computer

Weekend Wayfarers on Flickr

When do you think the first computer was invented? I guess the answer depends on how you define “computer”. Is it a machine with a keyboard, a mouse, and a screen like what we have today? Or does it have a broader meaning as we go back in time?

At its most basic level, a “computer” is something that computes—a machine that does mathematics for us. So, how far back in time do we need to go to find the first? Try 100 BCE. That’s when scientists believe the Antikythera mechanism was invented, more than 2000 years ago.

The Antikythera mechanism was found in the wreck of a trading ship, and while some of it was lost to time, historians could still figure out what it was for. It contained 30 gear wheels and worked with a little crank. As the days went by, you turned the crank. In response, the Antikythera mechanism would move and show you what’s on the horizon.

Back then, the things people wanted to track automatically were dates, years, and moon phases. And that’s exactly what the Antikythera mechanism did; it helped whoever owned it keep track of the flow of time.

Given that this was invented in 100 BCE, it’s easy to assume that this computer was massive; perhaps even took up a whole room. In actual fact, it was about as small as a clock, and could easily sit on a desk and tell you what was going to happen in the future.

In addition to the date, the year, and the moon’s phases, it could tell you what zodiac sign the sun and the moon were in and predict when solar and lunar eclipses would occur. It even had a tracker for when the next Olympics were going to be held.

Of course, you’re not going to be playing Fortnite on the Antikythera mechanism. Long ago, computers weren’t made to generate graphics or code. Instead, they were more of a way to automatically compute what humans already understood. That way, they didn’t have to remember everything; they just let the computer do all the hard work. Perhaps, we will discover more trinkets from “way back when” indicating that ancient civilizations were more technology savvy than we thought.

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The Antikythera mechanism