Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ancient Computer Reveals Some Functions

The mechanism is now thought to have been built in Corinth about 140 B.C.

After more than a century, scientists have deciphered at least some functions of the Antikythera Mechanism – sometimes regarded as the world’s oldest analog computer – finding it to be capable of predicting solar eclipses as well as establishing timing of the Olympiad’s four-year cycle.

The device was built by Greeks around 140 B.C. and was recovered by sponge divers in 1901 from the wreckage of a ship that sank north of Crete. Its functions had stymied researchers until now, when they are able to use high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography to decipher the mechanism’s inscriptions. Among the new revelations are the names of the ancient calendar’s 12 months, found on dials on the backside of the mechanism.

The names of the months on the mechanism seem to tie it to the colonies of Corinth on the island of Sicily. If that’s the case, the device may be connected to Archimedes, the famous Greek mathematician and astronomer who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C. References to devices such as the Antikythera Mechanism are found in classical literature, including Cicero’s mention of one made by Archimedes, though only this one has even been found.

Beginning in 776 B.C., the Greeks held their Olympic games on the full moon closest to the summer solstice. This was done on a four-year cycle, called the Olympiad, and required sophisticated astronomical tools to compute. Researchers discovered the mechanism's role when they found the name of one of the ancient Olympic games, "Nemea," on one of its small dials. 

(Photo at left shows a radiograph of the Antikythera device.)

The mechanism still contains many mysteries,” Tony Freeth of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project in Cardiff, Wales, said in today’s New York Times. “We believe that this mechanism cannot have been the first such device since it is so sophisticated and complex. And we don’t understand why this extraordinary technology apparently disappeared for several hundred years, later to emerge in the great astronomical clocks of the 14th century onwards.”

Click here to go to the New York Times article.
Click here for a Reuters article focusing on the Olympiad aspect.
Click here for a fascinating video on how scientists used technology to decipher the device.

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