+ Unlocking the Mystery of a Computer from 100 BC

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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.  Research has shown that it was probably built between 140 and 100 BC.

New findings suggest that the device not only predicted solar eclipses, but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.  In the July issue of the journal “Nature”  it is also posited that the mechanism’s conception originated in the colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, on Sicily — an implication of a connection with Archimedes.

Archimedes lived in Syracuse and died in 212 BC.  He invented a planetarium calculating motions of the Moon and the known planets, and wrote a lost manuscript on astronomical mechanisms.  Previous evidence had 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 orbit.

Now, applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, experts have been able to decipher inscriptions and reconstruct functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism.  The latest findings have revealed details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of the ancient calendar.

Tony Freeth, a mathematician and filmmaker, led a team for the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project in Cardiff, Wales.  He says the month names “are unexpectedly of Corinthian origin,” which suggests a “heritage going back to Archimedes.”

The Corinthian connection was unexpected, the researchers say, because other cargo in the shipwreck appeared to be from the eastern Mediterranean, places like Kos, Rhodes and Pergamon.

The months inscribed on the instrument “are practically a complete match” with those on calendars from Illyria and Epirus in northwestern Greece and with the island of Corfu.  Seven months suggest a possible link with Syracuse.

Inscriptions showed that one of the instrument’s dials was used to record the timing of the pan-Hellenic games, a four-year cycle that was “a common framework for chronology” by the Greeks, the researchers said.

“The mechanism still contains many mysteries,” says Dr Freeth, among which is the place of the mechanism in the development of Greek technology.  Several references to similar instruments appear in classical literature, including Cicero’s description of one made by Archimedes.  But this one is the sole surviving example.

According to Freeth, who is also associated with Images First Ltd in London, the Metonic calendar was designed to reconcile the lengths of the lunar month with the solar year.  Previously, no month names had been known on such a claendar.  Such a calendar illustrates the influence of Babylonian astronomy on the Greeks.  The calendar was used by Babylonians from at least the early fifth century BC.

source: John Noble Wilford’s article in the NY Times on 7/31/08. 


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