We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Building an Ancient Greek "Computer" out of Lego

By Jennifer Welsh
Dec 11, 2010 3:41 AMNov 20, 2019 2:22 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Nature editor Adam Rutherford wanted to see how a 2,000-year-old astronomical computation machine--called the Antikythera Mechanism--works. So he set Apple software engineer Andy Carol to the task of building one, using one of the most sophisticated construction systems humanity has ever devised: Lego. It took 30 days and 1,500 Lego Technic parts. The gear-based machine was discovered in the early 1900s in a wrecked Roman merchant ship. Even after a century of study, it took the invention of CT scans to reconstruct the corroded device's inner workings and understand how the complex machine operates, explains Nature:

The device ... contained more than 30 bronze gearwheels and was covered with Greek inscriptions. On the front was a large circular dial with two concentric scales. One, inscribed with names of the months, was divided into the 365 days of the year; the other, divided into 360 degrees, was marked with the 12 signs of the zodiac.

It is the oldest known computing device, aka "computer." In 2008 researchers discovered

that the ancient Greeks used the device to not only calculate when eclipses would happen, but also to set the schedule for the Olympic Games. Carol had previously built Charles Babbage's difference engine

, a mechanical calculator designed in 1786. So Rutherford wondered if he could build the Antikythera Mechanism, he told New Scientist


"I asked him if he'd heard of the mechanism, and if he thought it was doable in Lego," says Rutherford. "A few weeks later, he sent me some pictures of a demo version he'd knocked up. It was stunning."

An in-depth explanation of the math and engineering behind this toy computer can be found onCarol's blog

. The solar eclipses can be predicted because they occur on a regular pattern, he explains:

The ancients observed that eclipses appeared to follow a cycle of 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours.If there was an eclipse of the sun at 10am on a certain date, then there was a very good chance there would be a similar eclipse on a date 18 years and 11 days in the future at 6pm (8 hours later in the day).Three such cycles would mean that a similar eclipse was probable 54 years and 34 days in the future at about the same time of day as the original eclipse.

Writer and filmmaker John Pavlus was on hand to document the eclipse-predicting lego machine (in the video above); he describes the intricate animation process needed to make the video happen in a blog post

. There is also a stop-motion video of the animation process: Related Content: 80beats: A Bronze “Computer” Helped Greeks Set the Schedule for the Olympic Games

Discoblog: Get Your Steampunk On: This Guy’s Building a Computer From 1837

DISCOVER: The First Computer

DISCOVER: Reviews: A Look at the World's First Computer

Video: YouTube / NatureVideoChannel

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.