Secrets of 2,000-Year-Old Analog Computer Revealed Using Gravitational Wave Technology – Summary

New insights into the workings of the world’s oldest analog computer, the famous Antikythera Mechanism, have been made with the help of an unlikely source: technology developed for the study of gravitational waves.

The Antikythera Mechanism is considered the oldest known analog computing device in the world. An example of “lost” early ancient technology, the early science instrument dates back more than 2,000 years and was used by astronomers to predict the positions of celestial objects for decades.

First discovered among the wreckage of a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, the mysterious mechanism has long intrigued modern scientists and engineers, mainly because it appears to be a unique invention, with no other similar devices from this period that it is known to exist.

Now, University of Glasgow researchers have used statistical modeling techniques originally developed for analyzing ripples in space-time to determine how many holes are likely to exist in one of the broken rings of the famous Antikythera Mechanism.

At the time of its discovery, the Antikythera mechanism was in a very worn state, having spent nearly two thousand years among the wreckage of a ship that sank near the Aegean island of Antikythera, the device’s namesake.

About the size of a shoebox, the device contains an array of gears with intricate tools that are surprisingly complex for any innovation from the second century BCE. Over the decades, studies of the device have revealed that it likely functioned as a handheld computer that would have allowed its operator to predict the coming of eclipses as well as calculate the positions of the planets over time.

The Antikythera Mechanism
The Antikythera Mechanism was recovered from a shipwreck in 1901 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

Fast forward to 2020, when X-ray images of one of the device’s components, which researchers identify as its calendar ring, revealed new features that included a series of regularly spaced holes beneath the ring. Given its highly weathered condition, the presence of rings could be discerned, although the number remained unclear, with estimates suggesting somewhere between 347 and 467 holes once existed along this damaged part of the device.

Now, in new research published in the Horological Journal, Glasgow researchers describe their use of a pair of statistical techniques in a new attempt to improve upon the previously estimated number of holes that once existed in this region of the Antikythera Mechanism. Applying Bayesian analysis and, in particular, new techniques from the search for gravitational waves, the team determined that the ring likely contains 354 holes.

This is significant as the 354 holes in the device would have perfectly aligned with the Greek lunar calendar, as opposed to the 365 holes of the Egyptian calendar. Based on the new analysis, the presence of 354 holes is hundreds of times more likely than the number of 360 holes previously considered.

Professor Graham Woan, a co-author of the paper, explained that he became interested in the problem after being introduced to the data by YouTuber Chris Budiselic, who was creating a replica of the calendar ring.

“Late last year, a colleague showed me data obtained by YouTuber Chris Budiselic, who was looking to make a replica of the calendar ring and was investigating ways to determine how many holes it contained.”

Woan said the Budiselic puzzle “struck me as an interesting problem and one that I thought I could solve in a different way over the Christmas holidays.” Woan then went to work using statistical techniques to see if a definitive answer could be obtained.

Dr. Joseph Bayley, a colleague of Woan’s at the University’s Institute for Gravitational Research, further refined the research by adapting techniques used in analyzing LIGO gravitational wave data to study the calendar ring. Their combined approaches, including Markov Chain Monte Carlo and nested sampling, confirmed the probability of 354 or 355 holes with an accuracy of about 1/3 mm.

quantum supremacy

Furthermore, the new analysis also reveals exceptional hole placement accuracy, with an average radial variation of just 0.028 mm. According to Bayley, using these dual approaches to solving lingering questions about the Antikythera Mechanism demonstrates the truly remarkable skill used by the device’s mysterious builders.

“It has given me a new appreciation for the Antikythera Mechanism and the work and care that Greek craftsmen took to make it,” Bayley said. “[T]the accuracy of positioning the holes would require very precise measuring techniques and an incredibly steady hand to hit them.

Professor Woan says that using modern techniques to study an ancient device designed to track celestial events will increase the research community’s appreciation of ancient technological achievements such as the Antikythera mechanism, which represents a particularly unique and innovative construction.

“We hope that our findings about the Antikythera mechanism, although less supernaturally spectacular than those made by Indiana Jones, will help deepen our understanding of how this remarkable device was created and used by the Greeks ,” Woan said in a statement.

Woan and Bayley’s study, “An Improved Calendar Ring Hole Count for the Antikythera Mechanism,” appeared in the July 2024 issue of Horological Magazine.

Micah Hanks is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Debrief. He can be contacted by email at Follow his work at and in X: @MicahHanks.

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