2000 Year Old Computer Reveals Secrets
The device is small, measuring 33x17x9 centimeters. It's smaller than a modern shoebox. The innards of the device include a complex set of differential gears formed at equilateral triangles, a technology previously thought to be invented in the 16th century. And the complexity of the device rivals that of clocks that were not made until the 18th century. The existence of the Antikythera Mechanism is causing us to rethink and possibly even rewrite what we know about ancient history. The mechanism was probably operated via a hand crank, and originally contained within a wooden frame or box. It is covered in Greek text, over 2000 characters in all.
After much careful study, and various x-ray scans, it was determined that the device is an Orrey. The purpose of an Orrey is to track the movement of celestial bodies. The differential geared construction allowed the Antikythera Mechanism to add and subtract angular velocities and thus accurately describe the motions of planets. This made it possible to compute a true lunar cycle, accounting for the effects of the suns movement. This hints at a level of technical expertise well above and beyond what we previously believed the ancient Greeks were capable of.
Michael Wright, the curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum in London believes that the device may have been built at an ancient academy "founded by the Stoic philosopher Poseidonios on the Greek island of Rhodes". It is now believed that Rhodes was famous for it's tradition of mechanical engineering and automata. Cicero may have mentioned it or a similar device in his writings. He tells of a machine "recently constructed by our friend Posidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets." And the poet Pindar may have been speaking of the automata of Rhodes when he wrote;
- The animated figures stand
- Adorning every public street
- And seem to breathe in stone, or
- move their marble feet.
Using the images from the two machines, they were able to identify an additional 1000 characters that were previously illegible. A complete translation is still underway. But with the new information they have gathered this year, experts now believe that the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to compute a heliocentric solar system, a millenia and a half before Copernicus. The research project has scheduled an international congress in Athens in November. By then a complete translation should be ready, and the full ramifications of the Antikythera Mechanism can be discussed by scientists from all over the world. Yanis Bitsakis of Athens University out lines the task faced by historians in the years ahead, "The challenge is to place this device into a scientific context, as it comes almost out of nowhere... and flies in the face of established theory that considers the ancient Greeks were lacking in applied technical knowledge."
Imagine an ancient Greece very different from the one you learned about in school, populated by accomplished mathematicians and engineers. A place where clockwork statuary lined the streets and sophisticated analog computers helped the Greeks calculate their place in the universe. Whatever ancient city the Antikythera Mechnism does hail from, it was a place of marvelous automata fifteen hundred years ahead of the Renissance. To think that the Greeks had the seeds for a potential industrial revolution at the same time that Alexander was marching his phalanx across Europe. First Bosnian Pyramids,and now Greek Clockwork... history gets more interesting every day. [via The Register]
"Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world." - Archimedes