Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Antikythera Mechanism - An Ancient Greek Computer

There were many brilliant people in the ancient world. As such, it is not usually surprising to learn about ancient inventions. Many so called modern inventions have ancient pasts.

However, I will still a bit taken aback to learn that the ancient Greeks had invented a computer. In 1901, divers working off the isle of Antikythera found the remains of a clocklike mechanism 2,000 years old. The mechanism now appears to have been a device for calculating the motions of stars and planets. This device is now known as the Antikythera Mechanism and it is recognized as being a mechanical analog computer.

In the June 1959 issue of Scientific American, Derek J. de Solla Price wrote about this in his article An Ancient Greek Computer. Price wrote, "From the evidence of the fragments one can get a good idea of the appearance of the original object. Consisting of a box with dials on the outside and a very complex assembly of gear wheels mounted within, it must have resembled a well- made 18th-century clock. Doors hinged to the box served to protect the dials, and on all available surfaces of box, doors and dials there were long Greek inscriptions describing the operation and construction of the instrument. At least 20 gear wheels of the mechanism have been preserved, including a very sophisticated assembly of gears that were mounted eccentrically on a turntable and probably functioned as a sort of epicyclic or differential, gear-system. " (p. 60).

The computer has continued to be studied since then. It has been in the news recently as scientists have managed to decipher most of the text on the device. The Times of India reported, "After deciphering most of the text they found the device was indeed made to calculate the position of certain stars, the known planets, the Sun and Moon, and to predict astronomical phenomena."

What does this mean? Not only do we have proof of an ancient computer but it also shows that the Greeks understood that the Earth and the Sun were not the center of the Universe. The Times of India article noted this, "Because if the investigators are correct it would mean that at least some Greeks had already adopted the heliocentric view of the solar system as opposed to the prevailing Aristotelian doctrine which put Earth and humanity at the centre of the cosmos."

This computer makes me wonder what other advanced devices the Greeks and other ancient civilizations may have made but which are now lost. The Dark Ages in Europe resulted in the loss of a lot of knowledge and scientific know how. If the Dark Ages had not occurred, would the world be more scientifically advanced now? I know I am speculating in alternate history here but before I heard about the Antikythera Mechanism, I though an ancient Greek computer was alternate history too...

2 comments:

Robin said...

This device has fascinated me since I first learned of it in college. It really proves that ancient civlizations were just as intelligent and capable as we are, in "modern times". Like you, I wonder what other innovations have been lost, and how they would have changed the course of history if they had been able to be developed.

It's funny, I just posted a blog post about this on my Suite 101 page this morning. I have been reading about it in the news lately, and couldn't wait to share it (I won't post the link - I don't want you to think I am spamming you!)!

I love your site, BTW!

Miland said...

Robin,

Thanks for the note. I have checked out your blog and will post the link here for you.

It is The Antikythera Mechanism.

Thanks.