Antikythera Mechanism: Secrets of 2,000 Year Old Computer Revealed

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In 2008, scans of the world’s oldest computer – Antikythera Mechanism – discovered the 2,100 year old device helped ancient Greeks track the position of the Sun and phases of the Moon. Sponge divers working near the Greek island of Antikythera, discovered the Roman cargo shipwreck in 1901 containing the find. Recent revelations suggest the Antikythera Mechanism calculated planetary positions, charting the passing of days and years using differential gears and cogs.

The Washington Post writes:

“In its prime, the Antikythera Mechanism was a complex, whirling, clockwork instrument comprising at least 30 bronze gears bearing thousands of interlocking tiny teeth. Powered by a single hand crank, the machine modeled the passage of time and the movements of celestial bodies with astonishing precision. It had dials that counted the days according to at least three different calendars, and another that could be used to calculate the timing of the Olympics. Pointers representing the stars and planets revolved around its front face, indicating their position in relation to Earth. A tiny, painted model of the moon rotated on a spindly axis, flashing black and white to mimic the real moon’s waxing and waning.”

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Reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism.

However, after extensive research, an international team of scientists decoded 3,500 characters of explanatory text written in ancient Greek. The scientists concluded that the first analog computer functioned for astronomical and astrological purposes.

Mike Edmunds, a professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University, stated the Antikythera Mechanism is not quite a manual. He said it’s “more like a long label you would get on a museum to describe a display.”

“It’s not telling you how to use it, it says ‘what you see is such and such’, rather than ‘turn this knob and it shows you something’. The original investigation was intended to see how the mechanism works, and that was very successful. What we hadn’t realized was that the modern techniques that were being used would allow us to read the texts much better both on the outside of the mechanism and on the inside than was done before. It takes it to me out of the realm of executive toys — an executive wouldn’t pay all that money to have all that waffle — it’s more serious than a toy.”

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Fragments of the ancient Antikythera Mechanism.

 

According to scientists, inscriptions refer to the color of a forthcoming eclipse; suggesting that the Antikythera Mechanism predicted solar and lunar events. These events, ancient Greeks believed, could impact human affairs. Edmunds explained:

“We are not quite sure how to interpret this, to be fair, but it could hark back to suggestions that the color of an eclipse was some sort of omen or signal. Certain colors might be better for what’s coming than other color. If that is so, and we are interpreting that correctly, this is the first instance we have in the mechanism of any real mention of astrology rather than astronomy.”

The researchers clarified that the primary purpose of the device was astronomical. However, the calendar also used colloquial month names and displayed the timings of athletic events, including the Olympic games.  Alexander Jones, a professor of history of ancient science at New York University, told Reuters:

“The texts were meant to help the viewer to understand what was the meaning of all the different points and dials, what it would teach them about the cosmos that they lived in … and about how, through cycles of time this related to their lives.”

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A digital image of the surface inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism.

The Antikythera Mechanism simulated Hellenistic cosmology; astronomy, meteorology and astral divination intertwined. Jones insisted:

“Now we have texts that you can actually read as ancient Greek, what we had before was like something on the radio with a lot of static. It’s a lot of detail for us because it comes from a period from which we know very little about Greek astronomy and essentially nothing about the technology, except what we gather from here. So these very small texts [some of the letters measured just 1.2 millimeters] are a very big thing for us.

“It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos. It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment. I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device.”


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