Today, when we think of a computer, we often imagine our laptops and iPhones as lightweight forms of improved technology from the bulky original versions with dial-up Internet. But what about a 2,000-year-old “computer”?
Reminiscent of something out of an Indiana Jones film, the Antikythera Mechanism was used by the ancient Greeks to map astronomical movements and predict the transit of the stars. Steeped in mystery, this seemingly otherworldly object is now being studied by an international team of researchers.
Discovered in a shipwreck by sponge divers in 1900, historians still debate when exactly the Antikythera Mechanism dates from. Many agree it was somewhere between 60 BCE and 200 BCE, however.
It is thought that, through a series of bronze gears, the “computer” was used to predict eclipses, track the movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars, and track the positions of the five planets known to the Greeks at the time. These include: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
The biggest allure of this device is its technological maturity over other devices of the time, standing out as hundreds, if not thousands, of years ahead of anything else. “This was absolutely state of the art in astronomy at the time,” says Alexander Jones, a historian of astronomy at the University of Toronto, Canada.
Researchers of the new study on the device have deciphered the text on its 82 remaining fragments using X-ray scanning and newly developed imaging technology. Some of the ancient Greek inscriptions measured 1.2 millimeters high, making the text impossible for the naked eye to decipher. And hundreds of years of wear and tear and built-up sediment have made it further difficult to pick apart the writings.
Nearly everyone who has studied the device agrees that it couldn’t have been completed quickly, and that it likely took several generations to achieve the discovered version.
The ancient “computer” was once thought to be a scientific machine used solely for astronomy, while the new research points out that it may have served more of a “supernatural” purpose, as the orrery was thought to be able to predict the color of future eclipses, which perhaps the ancient Greeks viewed as apparent prophecies.
“We are not quite sure how to interpret this, to be fair, but it could hark back to suggestions that the color of an eclipse was some sort of omen or signal. Certain colors might be better for what’s coming than other colors,” explains Mike Edmunds, an astrophysics professor at the University of Cardiff in Wales.
Alexander Jones, a professor of history of ancient science at New York University, agrees that the Antikythera Mechanism teeters between science and supernatural, but more so believes it’s about how the Greeks viewed the natural world.
“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 asserts. “I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device.”
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