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Antikythera Mechanism: an Ancient Computer? 

In November 2006, in an article published in Nature, team of researchers lead by Mike Edmunds of the University of Cardiff announced they had pieced together and figured out of the functions of an ancient astronomical calculator made at the end of the 2nd century B.C. that was so sophisticated it has been described as the world’s first analog computer. The devise was more accurate and complex than any instrument that would appear for the next 1,000 years. [Source: Reuters]

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Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest known device to contain an intricate set of gear wheels. It was discovered by sponge divers on a shipwreck off Antikythera, a Greek island north of Crete, in 1901 but until recently no one knew what it did. Using X-ray tomography, computer models and copies of the actual pieces, scientists from Britain, Greece and the United States were able to reconstruct the device, whose sophistication was far beyond what was though possible for the ancient Greeks.

 The lunch-box-size device was comprised of 37 gear wheels packed together sort of like the gears in a watch and was housed in a wooden case with inscriptions on the cover and bronze dials. It could add, multiply, divide and subtract. It was also able to align the number of lunar months with years and display where the sun and the moon were on the zodiac. On top of all that it also had a dial that indicated when solar and luna eclipses were likely to occur; it tracked the dates of the ancient Olympics and other sporting events; it took into account the elliptical orbits of the moon; and it may have had extra gears that predicted the motions of the planets.

 Edmunds told Reuters, “It could be described as the first known calculator. Our recent work has applied very modern techniques that we believe have now revealed what its actual functions were…the actual astronomy is perfect for the period. What is extraordinary about the things is that they were able to make such a sophisticated technological device and be able to put that into metal.” Edmundssaid the device is unique. Nothing like it has ever been since, and devices that were as sophisticated would not appear until the Middle Ages, when the first cathedral clocks were put into use.

 On the discovery that the Antikythera Mechanism tracked Olympic days Yanas Bitsakis, a Greek researcher involved with project told AP. “We were astonished because this is not an astronomic cycle but an Olympian cycle, one of social events. One does not need a piece of high technology to keep track of a simple four-year cycle .” He said the mechanics might have been seen as “microcosm illustrating the temporal harmonization of human and divine order.”

 The device also has a function related to the Metonic calendar, which was used to reconcile a day difference between the lunar months and solar year. Researchers believe the Olympic tracking system gives the Antikythera Mechanism a connection to the colonies of Corinth, possible Syracuse in Sicily, where Archimedes lived and this in turn hints of a connection with Archimedes himself. Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C. He invented a planetarium that calculated motions of the moon and the known planets and wrote a lost manuscript on astronomical mechanisms.

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