Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Add a Century to Antikythera's Age

This 1-minute new animation by Italian astronomer Mogi Vicentini brilliantly demonstrates the inner workings of the Antikythera.

The ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism ~ often considered the world’s earliest known computer ~ now appears to be even older than previously thought. According to Jo Marchant, author of Decoding the Heavens, writing in New Scientist magazine:

This mysterious box of tricks was a portable clockwork computer, dating from the first or second century BC. Operated by turning a handle on the side, it modelled the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets through the sky, sported a local calendar, star calendar and Moon-phase display, and could even predict eclipses and track the timing of the Olympic games.

I gave a talk on the device at London's Royal Institution last night. One new clue I mentioned to the origin of the mechanism comes from the Olympiad dial ~ there are six sets of games named on the dial, five of which have been deciphered so far. Four of them, including the Olympics, were major games known across the Greek world. But the fifth, Naa, was much smaller, and would only have been of local interest.

The Naa games were held in Dodona in northwestern Greece, so Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York has suggested that the mechanism must have been made by or for someone from that area.

Intriguingly, this could mean the device is even older than thought. The inscriptions have been dated to around 100 BC, but according to Jones the device may have been made at latest in the early second century BC, because after that the Romans devastated or took over the Greek colonies in the region, so it's unlikely that people would still have been using the Greek calendar there.

Click here for the complete New Scientist article.

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