Antikythera mechanism is a 2,000-year-old computer

Antikythera mechanism is a 2,000-year-old computer

Antikythera mechanism is a 2,000-year-old computer

115 years ago, divers found a hunk of bronze off a Greek island. It changed our understanding of human history.

Exactly 115 years ago, scuba divers looking for sponges discovered the wreck of a 2,000-year-old ship on the Greek island of Antikythera. Dispersed among the treasures of the shipwreck, beautiful vases and vessels, jewels, a bronze statue of an ancient philosopher, was the most peculiar thing: a series of bronze gears and dials mounted in a case the size of a chimney clock. Archaeologists called the instrument the mechanism of Antikythera. The genius – and the mystery – of this piece of ancient Greek technology, arguably the world’s first computer, is why Google is to highlight it today in a Google Doodle.

What is the Antikythera mechanism?
At first glance, the piece of brass found near the ruin looks like something you could find in a junkyard or hanging on the wall of a sea-themed dive bar. What remains of the mechanism is a set of rusty bronze gears sandwiched in a rotten wooden box.

Antikythera mechanism is a 2,000-year-old computer

But if you look into the machine, you see evidence of at least two dozen gears, laid neatly on top of one another, calibrated with the precision of a master-crafted Swiss watch.

But a mystery remained: What was this contraption used for?

The world’s first mechanical computer?

To archeologists, it was immediately apparent that the mechanism was some sort of clock, calendar, or calculating device. But they had no idea what it was for. For decades, they debated: Was the Antikythera a toy model of the planets? Or perhaps it was an early astrolabe (a device to calculate latitude)?

In 1959, Princeton science historian Derek J. de Solla Price provided the most thorough scientific analysis of the contraption to date. After a careful study of the gears, he deduced that the mechanism was used to predict the position of the planets and stars in the sky depending on the calendar month. A main gear would move to represent the calendar year, and would, in turn, move many separate smaller gears to represent the motions of the planets, sun, and moon.

So you could set the main gear to the calendar date and get approximations for where those celestial objects would be in the sky on that date.

And Price declared in the pages of Scientific American that it was a computer: “The mechanism is like a great astronomical clock … or like a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts to save tedious calculation.”

It was a computer in the sense that you, as a user, could input a few simple variables and it would yield a flurry of complicated mathematical calculations. Today the programming of computers is written in digital code — series of ones and zeros. This ancient clock had its code written into the mathematical ratios of its gears. All the user had to do was enter the main date on one gear, and through a series of subsequent gear turns, the mechanism could calculate things like the angle of the sun crossing the sky.  — which used gear ratios to add and subtract — didn’t arrive in Europe until the 1600s.)

Scientists have learned even more about how the Antikythera mechanism works

 

The mechanism had several dials and clock faces, each of which fulfilled a different function to measure the motions of the sun, moon, stars and planets, but all were operated by a main crank.

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