Book Review – Computers in BCE

Book Review – Decoding the Heavens: A 2000-year-old Computer & the Century Long Search to Discover its Secrets  by Jo Marchant.  Readily available for around $15.00

Once upon a time, during the third century BCE, there lived one among many wise men in Alexandria whose inquiring mind could reach far beyond the accepted knowledge and question the smallest of things in order to understand greater truths.  This man, Eratosthenes, was a Greek mathematician, geographer (he is credited with inventing the discipline), poet, athlete, astronomer and music theorist.  He also invented a system of latitude and longitude, which means he knew the earth was round.  This came about because he read a sort of diary notation that at high noon on the day of the summer solstice there were no shadows in a temple town some 800 miles south of him; in Alexandria there were.  So, by hiring someone to step off the distance, and calculating that it was impossible for the shadows to differ unless the world was not flat – he calculated the circumference of the globe.  He did so with amazing accuracy.  He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis.  Long before Copernicus, those with the patience to explore the structure of the world around us knew that the globe was round and just how large it was.  So, how does this relate to my selection for this week?

In 1901, in the middle of a dive to collect artifacts from a 2000-year-old shipwreck on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, divers found an enigmatic lump about the size of a shoebox.  Named for the area it was found in, the Antikythera Mechanism has baffled scientists and archeologists for over a century.  You see, it was discovered that the “lump” was a device with many small, interlinking gears made of brass and that there were some sort of astronomical symbols emblazoned on its parts.  In October of 2006 the technology was developed to look inside the corroded lump and try to piece together its original purpose and construction.  Decoding the Heavens is a story of the discovery and the “decoding” of the working of this amazing little computer.  Yes, computer.

The Antikythera Mechanism is a navigational instrument made up of 30 gears and “programmed” to determine the position of the sun, moon and planets.  It can predict both solar and lunar eclipses.  And yet this amazing little device was found on a ship that sunk some 80 years BCE.  Such an instrument indicates that the Greeks made good use of Eratosthenes’ work and developed a reliable navigational instrument.  Yet we forgot.  As noted above, in was nearly 1,400 years before Copernicus tried to re-educate us on such a concept.

This book is a magical journey through that amazing world of accomplishments the human race made in times of the distant past.  So, again I wonder…  “Is it something we’ve left behind…”

So, what about you?  What corners of our past are you most interested in?  Let me know and, perhaps,  we’ll discover something fascinating together!


Just adding recent news about this discovery. The more that is known, the more complex this object appears. See the article here.



Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf (and a movie or two), My Bookshelf ~ Before Current Era, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

3 responses to “Book Review – Computers in BCE

  1. I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t sure from your description. Is this more a scholarly text or a more popular one? I’ve got only the average lay understanding of the Antikythera Mechanism and its history.

  2. It is an easy read but the text is well developed and well researched. It is the full history of the attempts to discover its use and it explores the roots of technology in ancient Greece, medieval Europe and the Islamic kingdom. If you want to know something about the history of technology in the distant past – this is a great place to start. By the way, if you even know about the Antikythera Mechanism you are already far ahead of the crowd!

  3. PS – no embarrassment allowed – this is an “any question is a great question zone!”

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