On the 17th May 1902, an ancient analogue computer known as the Antikythera mechanism was first identified by Greek archaeologist Valerios Stais. The clockwork computer uses a complex system of bronze gears to calculate astronomical phenomena such as eclipses, and the cycle of forthcoming Olympic Games.
Although Stais didn’t discover the mechanism, he was the first to notice inscriptions and a gear wheel embedded in a lump of corroded bronze and wood brought up from an ancient Greek wreck. The wreck itself had been discovered in 1900 by a team of sponge divers, and archaeologists had focused on other more obvious artefacts such as bronze and marble statues. Therefore what is known as the world’s oldest computer had lain in plain view for two years before anyone realised what it was.
To be fair, nobody in 1900 would have expected to find anything like the mechanism, and even modern scientists are still working to uncover its secrets. It’s generally accepted that astronomical clocks of similar complexity didn’t fully emerge until the 14th Century and so the mechanism truly is, as Cardiff University professor Michael Edmunds described it, “just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind”.
The level of complexity identified in the early 1900s led many people who studied the mechanism to declare that it could not be from the time of the other ancient finds from the wreck. Interest in the mechanism therefore waned again, and serious research into the didn’t actually begin until the 1970s. It is still ongoing.