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article imageAncient Greek computer from 100 B.C.: Archimedes strikes again?

By Paul Wallis     Jul 31, 2008 in Science
A device for computing the calendar called the Antikythera Mechanism was found on an ancient shipwreck over 100 years ago. Reexamined using modern technology, an advanced mechanism has been deciphered and its functions reconstructed.
One look at this mechanism is impressive. It becomes more so, as you discover it uses gears and dials, a whole new class of technology, and complexity, in the world of 100 B.C.
The New York Times:
Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C., invented a planetarium calculating motions of the Moon and the known planets and wrote a lost manuscript on astronomical mechanisms. Some evidence had previously linked the complex device of gears and dials to the island of Rhodes and the astronomer Hipparchos, who had made a study of irregularities in the Moon’s orbital course.
The Antikythera Mechanism, sometimes called the first analog computer, was recovered more than a century ago in the wreckage of a ship that sank off the tiny island of Antikythera, north of Crete. Earlier research showed that the device was probably built between 140 and 100 B.C.
Only now, applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, have experts been able to decipher inscriptions and reconstruct functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism. The latest research has revealed details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar.
In other words, it’s a formulaic-based machine, perhaps the oldest ever found in Europe. Generally speaking, this is precision work of a very high order. It requires reliable mechanical functions to work at all. The fact it was found on a ship is also significant.
Enter Archimedes. The lunar calendar is the connection with his work. The month names found on the machine are Corinthian, and relate to an ancient Babylonian calendar known as the Metonic calendar. The Metonic calendar was used to adjust lunar and the solar year.
The formula is the basis of the mechanism. Modern machinery, including digital, uses precision timers, and precision gears, and even now, it's a very demanding bit of production.
It’s no trivial achievement, in a non-mechanical age, either. Dials as regulators of gears means a multi-tier mechanism. That sort of technology isn’t out of the mental range of the Alexandrians, but it’s definitely a whole stairway, not just a step, above the mechanical norms of the time.
A display of Archimedes
A bust of Archimedes at the Gateshead Library in England
by Les Bessant
Apparently Cicero mentioned a similar device being made by Archimedes, but this is the only one known. So many of Archimedes’ inventions have been lost, and there are so many holes in our knowledge of his work, that there really is some justification for digging up the entire Mediterranean to find them. He was a Da Vinci of his time, and he’d be an Edison of ours.
If you have a look at the NYT picture, you don’t think “ancient”. You’d expect it to be 18th-19th century at least. If you were told it was a 20th century nautical navigation instrument from a shipwreck, you definitely wouldn’t be surprised.
For historians, technologists, and those interested in human invention only one expression really covers it:
“It’s that man again.”
More about Archimedes, Antikythera mechanism, Archaeology
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