Antikythera Mechanism

Turning back
the clock

Antikythera Mechanism

Ancient Technology in Mixed Reality

The Antikythera Mechanism plays the long game, so waiting for a few thousand years isn't such a big deal in the greater scheme of things.

In the spring of 1900, a party of Greek sea-sponge divers from Syme were blown adrift in a storm. After the winds passed, they found themselves near the coast of the Island of Antikythera, and jumped into the water to explore the sharply sloping seabed for sponges. What they found instead was a graveyard of lost treasure – jewelry, coins, pottery, marble and bronze statues – that had been aboard a cargo ship that succumbed to a storm at that same spot, somewhere around 70-60 BCE. The divers retrieved a bronze arm, and brought it back to Athens to secure help in excavating the entire shipwreck. That fall, the first ever marine archeological expedition began, and one of the objects they found was a lump of corroded copper, encrusted in rock, and worn by the saltwater. The world’s first computer was hauled out from the sea and taken to the National Museum of Athens, where it sat in a corner of a warehouse for a few more years before anyone gave it a serious look.

“It was brought to Athens, thrown into a sorting pile, and it wasn't really recognized until about May of 1902. Then somebody saw that there was writing on it, and that's where it really begins.”

DR. PAUL IVERSEN, Professor of Classics, CWRU

Over the following century, the true nature of the Antikythera Mechanism was (at least partially) revealed – the roughly 2000 year-old analog computer was used to track the cyclical and mechanistic nature of the known universe.

The device has 39 interlocking gears, a few inscribed with Greek letters no more than 1.5 mm in height. When cranked by hand, the gears would turn and indicate astronomical events (e.g., lunar eclipses, the irregular orbit of the moon) and even the cycle of six ancient Panhellenic games, including the famous Olympia. Much remains unknown about the device, particularly who made it and exactly when in the period of 205-50 BCE. However, we are starting to understand it a little better and see it more clearly, which is in no small part due to the work of one of the world’s foremost experts on the device – Professor Paul Iversen of the Classics Department at CWRU.

“The earliest literary references (to such a mechanism) are written in 54 BCE. It’s in Cicero's De Republica, and he is writing about a fictive dinner party around 129 BCE. There, one of the participants talks about this 'Sphera of Archimedes'; this device that mimics the heavens.”

DR. PAUL IVERSEN, Professor of Classics, CWRU

In his various courses and lectures on the topic, Dr. Iversen retells the unlikely tale of the device’s discovery, its place within the firmament of science and technology at the time of its creation, and a meta-discussion on the importance of looking back into history, archeology, and classics as we move forward into the future. Up until now, he has used books, pictures, and other 2-D source materials to show his students what the device might have originally looked like.

Thanks in part to a Provost-sponsored initiative to develop more mixed reality educational programming at CWRU, students will now be able to explore the device in true 3-D.

“People thought, 'Oh, there's no way that there could have been such a complex gear device this early,' because the earliest other example is 1000 AD. Some people thought maybe it was a later device that fell on top of the ship, but it's not – the inscriptions date it much earlier. This discovery pushes back by a thousand years our evidence of these devices.”

DR. PAUL IVERSEN, Professor of Classics, CWRU

“In some ways, it feels like we are building the plane while flying,” recounts James Gasparatos, the project manager at the IC. As Dr. Iversen worked on the model, new details kept emerging that confirmed or denied previous research, and thus changed the direction of the development. But there was a lot that could never be checked against the original, and would require "A little bit of imagination", as Dr. Iversen put it – only about half of the device remains, which was once held in a wooden box, now long gone. 

It was an exciting challenge for IC artist Lauren Kubacki, a Board Certified Medical Illustrator, and quite a departure from her previous assignments (e.g., neuroanatomy, or the liver). 

“I didn't have a lot of experience with hard surface modeling. My work so far has mostly been organic, and they're different styles with different things to think about — I'm going to think about how to make a heart differently than how to make a car.”


The data used to create the model had been collected by researchers over the last sixty years as they carefully scanned the delicate device to see what lay beneath the surface. In the 1960s, X-Rays taken by Charalambos Karakalos and explicated by Derek de Solla Price revealed the layers of interlocking gears. In the 2000s, CT scans were performed by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project in conjunction with The National Museum of Greece, which uncovered more gears and inscriptions.

More recently, Polynomial Texture Mapping was implemented, which uses a computer to manipulate the lighting source and angle on a particular object and takes pictures of it being lit from different directions. This was a major breakthrough, as Dr. Iversen explains, because “When you're trying to read inscriptions on the surface of something, the angle of the light is really important because the letters cast shadows in different ways." The excellent resolution of these images, particularly of the CT scans, showed something remarkable: "Inscriptions under the corroded surfaces that hadn't been read in 2000 years.”

“I felt that the Sicilian geometrician must have possessed a genius superior to any thing we usually conceive to belong to our nature.”

CICERO, Ancient Greek Philosopher

The students will be using Microsoft’s HoloLens  in class – a standalone holographic computer that users wear on their heads to view 3-D content. CWRU is Microsoft’s premiere development partner for Higher Education and large-group, shared experiences.

Just as this ancient technology touches upon so many different fields, Dr. Iversen hopes this cutting-edge new mixed reality technology will, too – 

“I believe that mixed reality technology needs to be expanded beyond STEM fields and used in humanities and other classes. I'm hoping that this project can bridge the divide, because it's a special artifact that touches upon all these different areas in science, astronomy, engineering, and history of science, but also classics and philosophy.”

DR. PAUL IVERSEN, Professor of Classics, CWRU

The discovery and reanimation of this device opens up a whole new understanding of the time during which it was made, and more importantly the people who made it. But... who did make it? What else could it do? Were there more of them? These and other questions are still the subject of scholarship and debate.

As layer upon layer is peeled back, the messages written 2,000 years ago into the metal (it would be another few hundred years for paper to be invented), will all likely be revealed. More fragments might be discovered, more connections will be made. In the meantime, however, it beckons its holders to stand back in awe at the beauty and complexity of the universe.