Greek squad: Scientists continue to troubleshoot 2,000-year-old computer


If Archimedes had a laptop, would he ever start calculating pi? If he had been born 2,500 years later, I can imagine him minimizing Minesweeper to display a Google document of equations every time the professor walked by. Dude would have love sudoku. A century after Archimedes, around 100 BC. BC, the ancient Greeks do have small computers, although they are not yet good at distracting from the task at hand. They were analog computers like the Antikythera Mechanism, constructed for a specific computation. The Antikythera Mechanism may well be the first computer ever made, and despite more than 100 years of study since its discovery in a shipwreck in 1901, researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how it worked. It probably didn’t help that the leftovers looked as crispy as a CPU cooler that hadn’t been cleaned since Quake was new.

The Antikythera Mechanism is believed to be an ancient Greek astronomical calculator, intended to show the movements of the planets using a very complex series of interlocking gears. Unlike the early digital computers of the 20th century, it was also remarkably compact, standing about a foot tall.

It took decades of study to understand what the Antikythera Mechanism was and what it did, as few pieces survive. But no model has been able to match a theoretical mechanical design with the known real motions of the planets. At least, until now.

Somehow, from the badly corroded remains of the computer, the researchers were able to find what they believe to be an accurate working model of the Antikythera Mechanism in its original form, by matching the inscriptions on the front of the device that specified how it was supposed to work far more closely than any previous effort.

“The inscriptions specifying complex planetary periods have forced new thinking about the mechanization of this Cosmos, but no previous reconstruction has come close to the data,” says the research paper published today in Scientific Reports. “Our findings lead to a new model, satisfying and explaining the evidence. Solving this complex 3D puzzle reveals a genius creation, combining cycles from Babylonian astronomy, mathematics from Plato’s Academy and astronomical theories from ancient Greece.”

Rendering of Antikythera

A rendering of what the computer might originally have looked like (Image credit: Scientific Reports)

Like The Guardian breaks down, researchers at University College London are building a reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism with today’s machines, and if it works, they’ll see if it’s possible to recreate with technology from the Greeks around 100 BC The design looks dizzyingly complex even today, with rings for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and the Moon, and could calculate it all, according to the report:

  • The ecliptic longitudes of the Moon, the Sun3 and the planets
  • The phase of the moon
  • the age of the moon
  • The synodic phases of the planets
  • Days excluded from the Metonic Calendar
  • Eclipses: Possibilities, Times, Characteristics, Years and Seasons
  • Heliacal risings and sets of prominent stars and constellations
  • The Olympiad cycle

Antikythera Gears

The researchers’ ambitious new model (Image credit: Scientific Reports)

How important was this around 100 BC? AD? The report says the Antikythera Mechanism is an astronomical compendium of “staggering ambition” and that it represents “the first steps towards the mechanization of mathematics and science”. It ends by casually saying that the computer “defies all our preconceptions about the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks”.

It is, however, a sticking point in the researchers’ new model of how the device may have been assembled. They used a set of interlocking tubes to fit over 30 interlocking gears and the arms representing the planets into a tight 25mm space. Feasible today, but could the Greeks have built it? One of the researchers, Adam Wojcik, told the Guardian: “The concentric tubes at the heart of the planetarium are where my faith in Greek technology falters, and where the model might also falter… The towers would be the way today, but we can’ I don’t suppose they had those for metal.”

Still, if the design holds true, it could be a 120-year breakthrough. I would like a replica for my office, please.

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