Is This the World’s Oldest Computer? 2,100-Year-Old Mechanical Relic Acted As an Astronomer’s ‘Guide to the Galaxy’

Written by on June 13, 2016 in Sci-Tech, Technology with 1 Comment
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For over a century since its discovery in an ancient shipwreck, the exact function of the Antikythera Mechanism (pictured) - named after the southern Greek island off which it was found - was a tantalizing puzzle. University of Athens professor Xenophon Moussas points at a possible reconstruction

For over a century since its discovery in an ancient shipwreck, the exact function of the Antikythera Mechanism (pictured) – named after the southern Greek island off which it was found – was a tantalizing puzzle. University of Athens professor Xenophon Moussas points at a possible reconstruction

By Abigail Beall | Daily Mail

Whether you are assembling an Ikea wardrobe or trying to fathom a mangled relic of very old technology, it always helps to have the manufacturer's instructions.

But for a century since its discovery in an ancient shipwreck, the exact function of the mysterious ‘Antikythera Mechanism' was impossible to decipher because only tiny parts of its text were understood.


Now, over 100 years after it was found, the relic has been revealed as a kind of philosopher's guide to the galaxy, and perhaps the world's oldest mechanical computer.

From a few words deciphered on the twisted, corroded fragments of bronze gears and plates, experts guessed the Antikythera Mechanism – named after the southern Greek island off which it was found – was an astronomical instrument.

But much more remained hidden out of sight.

After more than a decade's efforts using cutting-edge scanning equipment, an international team of scientists has now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text, a quarter of the original, in the innards of the 2,100-year-old remains.

The findings revealed it was a kind of philosopher's guide to the galaxy.

‘Now we have texts that you can actually read as ancient Greek, what we had before was like something on the radio with a lot of static,' said team member Professor Alexander Jones, a professor of the history of ancient science at New York University.


WHAT WAS IT USED FOR?

From a few words deciphered on the twisted, corroded fragments of bronze gears and plates, experts guessed the relic was an astronomical instrument.

But much more remained hidden out of sight.

After more than a decade's efforts using cutting-edge scanning equipment, an international team of scientists has now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text – a quarter of the original – in the innards of the 2,100-year-old remains.

They say it was a kind of philosopher's guide to the galaxy, and perhaps the world's oldest mechanical computer.

Fragments of the 2,100-year-old Antikythera Mechanism, believed to be the earliest surviving mechanical computing device, on display at the National Archaeological Museum, in Athens. Researchers say it was a kind of philosopher's guide to the galaxy, and perhaps the world's oldest mechanical computer

The Antikythera Mechanism was named after the southern Greek island off which it was found, in a mid-1st century BC shipwreck, discovered first in 1901 in the Aegean Sea. Location of the shipwreck pictured

The Antikythera Mechanism was named after the southern Greek island off which it was found, in a mid-1st century BC shipwreck, discovered first in 1901 in the Aegean Sea. Location of the shipwreck pictured

‘It's a lot of detail for us because it comes from a period from which we know very little about Greek astronomy and essentially nothing about the technology, except what we gather from here,' he said. ‘So these very small texts are a very big thing for us.'

The team says the mechanism was a calendar of the sun and the moon that showed the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and the moon in the zodiac, the position of the planets and predicted eclipses.

Nothing of the sort was known to be made for well over 1,000 years.

‘It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos,' Jones said.

‘It's like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.

‘I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher's instructional device.'

The letters, some just 1.2 millimetres (1/20 of an inch) tall, were engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the mechanism, which originally had the rough dimensions of an office box-file, was encased in wood and operated with a hand-crank.

A possible reconstruction of the more than 2,000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism pictured. Letters - some just 1.2 millimeters (1/20 of an inch) tall - were engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the mechanism was encased in wood and operated with a hand-crank

A possible reconstruction of the more than 2,000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism pictured. Letters – some just 1.2 millimeters (1/20 of an inch) tall – were engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the mechanism was encased in wood and operated with a hand-crank

A fragment of the 2,100-year-old Antikythera Mechanism.  The team says the mechanism was a calendar of the sun and the moon that showed the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and the moon in the zodiac, the position of the planets, and predicted eclipses. Nothing of the sort was known to be made for over 1,000 years

A fragment of the 2,100-year-old Antikythera Mechanism. The team says the mechanism was a calendar of the sun and the moon that showed the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and the moon in the zodiac, the position of the planets, and predicted eclipses. Nothing of the sort was known to be made for over 1,000 years

It was not quite a manual, more like a long label you would get on a museum to describe a display, according to another team member, Professor Mike Edmunds, who is an emeritus professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University.

‘It's not telling you how to use it, it says “what you see is such and such,” rather than “turn this knob and it shows you something”,' he said during a presentation of the team's findings in Athens.

The mechanism's fragments were raised in 1901 from a mid-1st century BC shipwreck, and at first seemed like a scruffy footnote to a magnificent body of finds that included bronze and marble statues, luxury glassware and ceramics.

But the sediment-encrusted, compacted lumps soon attracted scientific attention, and were studied by successive teams over the next decades.

While hypotheses were made as to the functioning of the gears and the use of the machine, it was for long impossible to read more than a few hundred characters of the texts buried on the inside of a multi-layered mechanism a bit like a big clock.`

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  1. Why not?? We are so arrogant to think we are the only life forms in the universe and that we have the world by the tail and have all of the answers…

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