Revealing the secrets of the Antikythera Mechanism: the world's oldest computer

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Country: 
United States
Media name: 
Digital Trends
Author: 
Luke Dormehl
Media type: 
Website
Publication Date: 
20/06/2016

If you thought the history of computers started with Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, think again! In fact, the world’s oldest computer is a 2,000-year-old astronomical calculator created by the ancient Greeks, called the Antikythera Mechanism.

Discovered more than a century ago by sponge divers at the bottom of the ocean, the Antikythera Mechanism was a source of mystery for many years. However, over the past few decades, researchers have begun to eke out more and more of its secrets. This month, a team of experts have revealed new information, based on reading 35,000 tiny Greek characters on the device itself — spelling out some of the origins of one of history’s most astonishing technical marvels.

“What the Antikythera Mechanism has taught us is that ancient Greek mechanicians were able to design and build highly complex devices, on a remarkably small scale, on mathematical principles and serving a scientific agenda,” Professor Alexander Jones, a foremost world expert on the history of ancient astronomy, based at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, tells Digital Trends.

The Antikythera Mechanism, he continues, was able to visually display the Moon’s current phase by way of a revolving, half-white half-black ball. It also showed the relative position of the sun and Moon in the sky, and could even predict the color of forthcoming lunar eclipses — though to be related to ancient Greek omens. Needless to say, it was enormously ahead of its time.

“With the exception of the Antikythera Mechanism, all the ancient and early medieval geared devices relied only on conventional engagements of toothed gears, which scale up or down rates of motion but can’t add, subtract, or periodically modify rates,” Jones says. “It was only with the astronomical clocks made in Europe in the late Middle Ages that these other devices reappeared.”

We look forward to more details about this astonishing machine emerging in the weeks, months and years to follow. Although we don’t envy the experts charged with the task of piecing it all together…