PC Ancestor Under the Sea

ByABC News
December 3, 2006, 4:32 PM

Dec. 3, 2006 — -- To say that an archaeological discovery is "technologically advanced by ancient Greek standards" would seem to imply simplicity rather than sophistication.

But earlier this week, a team of British, Greek and U.S. researchers identified a set of corroded bronze gears that suggest Ptolemy and his pals may have been sporting something more like a Rolex than a sundial.

The device, known today as the Antikythera mechanism, has been acknowledged as the world's earliest existing computer, possibly dating back to the first century B.C.

The process of dating the relic hasn't been easy, and for decades, scientists dismissed the mechanism as being developed far more recently.

In 1960, when physicist Derek de Solla Price suggested that ancient Greeks, not 20th century Americans, developed the ancestor of the modern personal computer, he was widely dismissed in scientific circles. Now, the Greeks' innovation is finally being recognized.

The unearthing of the Antikythera mechanism sounds more like the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie than an archaeological expedition, but this modern-day epic is the real thing.

A century ago, divers off the coast of southern Greece discovered the hidden treasure in a shipwreck. Among the corroded ruins, they found more than 30 bronze gears on the ocean floor, preserved but encased in layers of rust that had built up over 2,000 years.

Physicist Price became intrigued by the device when he moved to the United States from London and became a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Price was not the first to analyze the Antikythera mechanism -- but like so many others inspired by its mystery, it became his obsession. His youngest son, Mark, recalled the hours his father spent working with cardboard models trying to reconstruct the device.

"My whole life, I remember him tinkering, and it was like one of those math puzzles you couldn't quite solve," Mark de Solla Price said. "I remember him at the dining room table trying to think of what it could be and, 'Is there another piece I'm missing?'"