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Did the ancient Greeks have computers?

Humans have long been able to imagine complex machinery, but we only rarely have the societal resources to achieve it

I was recently listening to an audiobook reading of Homer’s Iliad when I heard something that grabbed my attention. The poet seemed to be describing machines that moved automatically by themselves – in a text written in the 8th century BC. Was I already dreaming?

Apparently not. On looking up the text, I was able to read back over what I’d heard.

The scene occurs when Thetis, mother of Achilles, visits the famous divine smith and craftsman Hephaestus in his workshop to ask him to make armour for her son.

Hephaestus seems to have some form of disability. The poem describes him as “lame”, limping, or clubfooted, with thin legs. But he has invented machines to assist him.


Thetis “found him busy with his bellows, sweating and hard at work, for he was making 20 tripods”, the poem recounts. Hephaestus has given the three-legged machines “golden wheels” so that they can travel around by themselves. They can “go of their own selves to the assemblies of the gods, and come back again – marvels indeed to see”.

These are not the only machine assistants that Hephaestus made.

He is attended by “golden handmaids also who worked for him”. Apparently possessed of artificial intelligence, these androids “were like real young women, with sense and reason, voice also and strength, and all the learning of the immortals”, the poem states. They busy themselves carrying out Hephaestus’s instructions.

The divine craftsman also has automated processes to help him build such clever machines. He does not need to physically work his 20 bellows to keep his smith’s fire hot. He instructs them – programmes them, if you will – “turning them towards the fire and bidding them do their office”.

“They blew blasts of every kind, some fierce to help him when he had need of them, and others less strong” according to how Hephaestus “willed it in the course of his work”.

Reading this reminded me that I had once seen an ancient Greek machine in person.

The kleroterion was on display in the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, on the hill below the Acropolis. It is token-operated and looks like a large and complex Connect 4. It was used to randomly select qualified citizens for jury duty during the period of democracy in Athens in the 4th century BC.

It’s not the most famous ancient Greek machine. In 1901, divers excavated an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. Among the statues, jewellery, pottery and coins was a lump of bronze and wood that was initially set aside. It was only later that archeologists noticed it had a gear wheel.

X-rays in the 1970s revealed its inner mechanisms, and over the decades historians and scientists were able to decipher the machine’s function by translating its markings.

These studies revealed the machine is a hand-powered model of the solar system that tracked the positions of the sun and moon, allowing for eclipses to be predicted years in advance. It could provide the user with calendar tracking of the lunar and solar cycles, as well as the great games that would take place every four years.

Now known as the Antikythera mechanism, the device is estimated to date from the 2nd century BC, and it drew on the knowledge of Greek astronomers. It has been called the oldest known analogue computer.

There are references in surviving texts to other complex machinery used by the ancient Greeks: water clocks, steam-powered machines, a temple vending machine that dispensed holy water when coins were inserted, pumping systems and central heating.

The ability to build advanced technology relies on complex and stable societal structures: resources, knowledge that is preserved and passed down, interconnected networks of skilled people.

These conditions did not survive the fall of the ancient Greek world. Some knowledge was likely retained in Islamic and Byzantine scholarship, along with ancient Greek philosophy and mathematics at a time when these were lost to northern Europe. Some simpler devices were built in the Middle Ages, and the Chinese scientist Su Song created a famous water-powered astronomical clock tower in the 11th century. But the ability to build machines as complex as the Antikythera mechanism was lost in Europe until the 14th century, a millennium and a half on.

The descriptions of automation, and even artificial intelligence, in ancient Greek literature are a reminder of the vast abilities of the human imagination. But the circumstances in which such complex technological ideas can be realised are, in historical terms, rare and fragile. A lesson for our times.