Skip to comments.Shocking Discovery: a PC in B.C.? (Antikythera Mechanism)
Posted on 05/02/2009 6:23:53 PM PDT by Maelstorm
A little more than a century ago, in the year 1900, some Aegean sponge divers stopped on the barren Greek islet of Antikythera, between Crete and Greece, to seek shelter from a fierce storm.
After things had calmed, they continued diving in the relatively shallow waters nearby and happened upon an ancient Roman shipwreck that contained confiscated Greek treasures of bronze and marble statues, jewelry, glassware and even a bronze throne.
Also among the artifacts was what appeared to be a corroded lump of rock that, for some unknown reason, was dumped into a crate during the 10-month salvage recovery by the government of Greece.
The container ended up in storage within the courtyard at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. And there it sat for months and months.
When the rocky mass finally cracked open, apparently on its own, everyone there was astonished by what was revealed. What they saw in the remains were traces of gearwheels, ancient Greek inscriptions and circular scales that were precisely marked.
Careful research since then has shown that the "Antikythera Mechanism," as it later became known, was a relic from the ancient past. Further, before this discovery, not one single gearwheel, pointer or scale had been found from antiquity, making this finding said to be unique in all of history.
What was it? And what purpose did it serve?
Thanks to dedicated researchers over the past four or five decades and to a journalist who shares kindred passions, we now have some plausible explanations for its existence and inadvertent sighting. And among these considerations has materialized the elephant in the room: Could this more than 2,000-year-old contraption be construed as the first computer?
I came across this absorbing tale of discovery in an article in December's "New Scientist" magazine. The author of the piece is science and history writer Jo Marchant, who abridged much of the narrative's complexities in the post. She also is the author of the book, "Decoding the Heavens," which gives the full-blown version with its many ramifications.
From the conclusions of the recent researchers, Marchant thinks that we can get a pretty good idea of what this ancient mechanism did.
"It turns out that it was a hand-wound clockwork device used to calculate the motions of the sun, moon and planets as seen from Earth, as well as predict solar and lunar eclipses," she wrote in the magazine.
For many years, a number of scholars thought the discovery was a hoax.
Others postulated that perhaps a more modern ship had dropped its cargo on the exact site by accident.
The studies of the past few decades, however, have revealed that the device's inscriptions and gear-wheel technology, among other things, point to an origin around 100 B.C., possibly in Rhodes, Marchant intimates.
The "Antikythera Mechanism" "was enclosed in a wooden box and driven by a handle on the side," described Marchant in the article. "As the user turned the handle, they could wind backward or forward in time to see the positions of heavenly bodies at any chosen moment," she noted.
It likely is no coincidence that the mathematician, scientist and inventor, Archimedes of Syracuse (Sicily), lived in the area just over a century before the device's origin. Archimedes is said to have pioneered the applications of gear-wheels, and his father was an astronomer.
Additionally, Hipparchus of Rhodes, who was born just 22 years after Archimedes died, was a leading astronomer of the time. His influence is said to be felt in the mechanism as well.
The many twists and turns in the device's journey through southeast Europe and the western edge of Asia Minor on its way to the bottom of the sea, and the interrelationships of the key players all can be followed in more detail in Marchant's magazine article.
An online version is available at www.newscientist.com/article/mg20026861.600-archimedes-and-the-2000yearold-computer--.html.
A working replica of the "Antikythera Mechanism" has been constructed by former London Science Museum curator, Michael Wright. It functions perfectly.
So is the "Antikythera Mechanism" an ancient predecessor of the computer you use? Perhaps yes. And, then again, perhaps no.
What we do know is that almost two millennia passed between "Antikythera" and Charles Babbage's "difference engine," begun in 1822 but never completed. What was constructed weighed 15 tons and had 25,000 parts a monstrosity compared to the "mechanism." A later version could mechanically calculate mathematical results to 31 digits (more than today's pocket calculators).
Later, from punch-card machines in the 1930s, steadily improving technology has given us today's desktop and laptop. It may be up to you, however, to come to your own conclusion as to whether or not there's a relational connection between the ancient mechanism and today's digital dandies.
Analog computers are pretty fast.
I once toured a battleship and the analog computers (gears) were unbelievable. When the USS Pennsylvania was rebuilt in the’80s, they left the gear computers alone. Could not be improved upon at that time.
The divers also found a copy of Windows B.C.
You think it may have been infected with a Trojan Horse?
Nikola Tesla designed and built the first electronic binary logic gate circuits...these logic circuits were the first step toward the modern binary digital computers.
“After World War II when computer hardware manufacturers attempted to patent digital logic gates in general, the U.S. Patent Office asserted Tesla’s turn-of-the-century priority in their electrical implementation. These same patents also describe essential features of the spread-spectrum wireless communications techniques known as frequency-hopping and frequency-division multiplexing.”
Thats pretty good because the USS Pennsylvania has been underwater since 1948!
I remember reading about the Antikythera mechanism in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” back when I was a kid in the 50’s.
There was a program on one of the science channels a year or so back about the mechanism which they pretty much understand now. It was even more complex than originally thought.
I believe some guy has even made a working copy of it.
Yep that is a picture of it. I just watched something about it last night on the History channel. It is horrible that the library of Alexandria was lost.
“Nikola Tesla designed and built the first electronic binary logic gate circuits...these logic circuits were the first step toward the modern binary digital computers.
After World War II when computer hardware manufacturers attempted to patent digital logic gates in general, the U.S. Patent Office asserted Teslas turn-of-the-century priority in their electrical implementation. These same patents also describe essential features of the spread-spectrum wireless communications techniques known as frequency-hopping and frequency-division multiplexing.
Thank you ,My Dad was a fan of his.
I saw it in Athens ten years ago, before the recent reconstruction. It’s an amazingly sophisticated device for its time. The lettering on it looks stamped, almost machined but then they had no machine tools then, so whoever the craftsman was he must have been very skilled at.
As for the island of Antikythera, it was virtually depopulated during the Greek Civil War between the communists and nationalists in the late 1940s - another place where the “Cold War” wasn’t very cold. When I was there in 1999 there were only about 30 fisherman living on the island. The rest had either killed one another or moved to or Australia. It did have a cell site, most Greek islands do, so GSM coverage was good.
Hipparchus is credited with discovering precession. We were just discussing that on another thread:
Strangest part of this story?
Three pimply undergrads from Carnegie-Mellon are actually running Linux on this thing.
She's also much easier to look at than Tesla.
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