Ancient computer wows scientists

Antikythera mechanism: Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Antikythera mechanism: Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

A two thousand year-old computer found a century ago in a sunken Roman cargo ship, is finally revealing some of its secrets. The device, known as the Antikythera mechanism, has intrigued and baffled scientists ever since its discovery, but now because of advanced technology, its purpose is becoming clearer.

In 1900, Elias Stadiatos, a Greek sponge diver, came upon the wreck of a Roman vessel just off the coast of the small island of Antikythera between island of Crete and Greece. Stadiatos was more interested in the bronze statues, pottery, furniture, and jewelry that littered the wreck site. But what proved most valuable were a few corroded and encrusted green lumps, the remains of a very intricate mechanical device.

Initially housed in a small wooden container about the size of a shoebox, the Antikythera mechanism was constructed of dozens of internal bronze gear wheels and external dials marked with Greek inscriptions, and operated with a hand-crank. Derek Price, a science historian at Yale University studied the device extensively back in the 1960s.

Price concluded it was an astronomical computer capable of calculating the position of the sun and moon in the Zodiac on any given date.

But other scientists and academics were skeptical since nothing else approaching the complexity of the mechanism’s technology was known until over a thousand years later when geared clocks began to appear during the Middle Ages.

However, recent analysis by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project not only reinforces Price’s theory of an ancient and advanced Greek mechanical technology, but it seems the mechanism is even more complex than even Price had realized.

Comprised of an international team of Greek, American, and British scientists, the project used specialized imaging and x-ray scanning technology to analyze the more than eighty fragments. The results of their study appeared in the journal Nature .

"We have used the latest technology available to understand this mechanism, yet the technological quality in this mechanism puts us to shame," said project leader Mike Edmunds, professor of astronomy at Cardiff University in Wales. "If the ancient Greeks made this, what else could they do?"

Using a 7.5 ton Hewlett-Packard scanner, and 3D x-ray equipment from the British firm of X-Tek, Edmunds and his team were able to read more than double the inscriptions on the mechanism, and decipher many more of its secrets.

"It was a calendar of the moon and sun, it predicted the possibility of eclipses, it showed the position of the sun and moon in the zodiac, the phase of the moon, and we believe also it may have shown the position of some of the planets, possibly just Venus and Mercury," Edmunds said.

It could predict a solar eclipse to a precise hour and day, and would have been useful for calculating planting and harvesting times and calendars for religious festivals.

The Antikythera mechanism’s eighty-two surviving fragments date back to around 120 B.C. Scientists speculate it was built on the island of Rhodes , which had a long tradition in astronomy and applied mechanics. It’s also thought the Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, who lived on Rhodes at the time, may have been involved in its design.

The Roman wreck, from where the device was salvaged, is believed to have been sailing from the island of Rhodes, when it sank sometime in the first century B.C.

“We will not yet be able to answer the question of what the mechanism was for, although now we know what the mechanism did,” Edmunds said.


New York Times
Antikythera Mechanism Research Project
Economist (2002 article)

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