Ancient advantage

Senior reporter

We tend to think of computers as a modern invention, electronic devices with roots in the mechanical engines invented by the likes of Babbage in the 19th century. But a programme on BBC Four last night highlighted that computing has a much longer history stretching all the way back to ancient Greece.

The Antikythera mechanism is a clockwork calculator dating back to the first century BC that was designed to predict the movement of the celestial bodies. Watching the programme, I found it difficult to decide what was more amazing: the machine itself, which combined centuries of knowledge of astronomy and mathematics with intricate engineering that some put on a par with Victorian clocks; or the techniques employed by modern researchers to discover how the mechanism worked and what it was used for by studying the calcified fragments rescued from the bottom of the sea 100 years ago

Thinking about this incredible device sparked a discussion in The Engineer office about not only the longevity of technology but about the fragile nature of knowledge itself. So much of our most advanced engineering today is found in electronics that would unlikely survive entombment underwater for 2,000 years, while the information it stores is locked up in bits and bytes that could easily be lost, even if the machine itself remained in tact.

And yet a technology (albeit a much simpler one) created when people still believed the Earth was the centre of the universe can still impart its knowledge to us, two millennia after it was built and then lost.

While the artefacts of the ancient world had to make it through conquests, dark ages and being shunted around on ships that could easily succumb to stormy weather, it’s easy to assume that our own technological achievements will last forever. You can picture visitors to a museum in the year 4,000 staring in wonder at the simplistic design of an iPhone.

But at a time when the latest technological gadgets are viewed as disposable, this is by no means guaranteed. A lifetime of research saved on a computer without a backup can be destroyed if a hard disk fails, reflecting how more tangible ways of storing information have their benefits too. And who’s to say a future global conflict won’t send human progress spiralling backwards for decades or even centuries?

However, there is one unquestionable advantage to the electronic nature of our modern system of storing information. The internet has opened up the sharing and preservation of knowledge on a global scale, achieving more than any invention that came before it, from the alphabet to the printing press.

The Antikythera mechanism itself may have survived in some form but its impact could have been so much greater had the ancient Greeks’ knowledge of this first computer not been restricted to a small number of people. Imagine a world where the Romans or the early Muslim world had widespread use of mechanical clocks, calendars and calculators. Perhaps iPhones might have already become museum pieces thanks to such a leg-up.

Speculation of parallel worlds aside, this awareness of the importance of both preserving and sharing knowledge feeds into the debate going on today about access to scientific journals and whether publishers should make them freely available on the internet. Individuals can make huge strides in technology but how much more can society achieve if its knowledge is open to all?

The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Computer is available to watch on iPlayer.