Science

World's oldest computer may be older than previously thought

The Antikythera Mechanism is the world's oldest computer (Photo: Giovanni Dall Orto)
The Antikythera Mechanism is the world's oldest computer (Photo: Giovanni Dall Orto)
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The Antikythera Mechanism is the world's oldest computer (Photo: Giovanni Dall Orto)
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The Antikythera Mechanism is the world's oldest computer (Photo: Giovanni Dall Orto)

Since its discovery over a century ago, the Antikythera Mechanism has had scholars scratching their heads over how the Greeks managed to build a mechanical computer a hundred years before the birth of Christ and thousands of years before anything similar. But now things have become even stranger as researchers claim that it's over a hundred years older than previously believed and may have been built by a famous hand.

The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered in 1901 by sponge divers off the Greek island of Antikythera. At first, not much was made of it, but after the coral-encrusted, corroded mass of bronze gears was later studied using x-rays, gamma rays, and neutrons, and then reconstructed, it turned out to be something astonishing.

The device at first was thought to be some sort of surprisingly early clock, but then it turned out to be the oldest computer known. In fact it was an analog astronomical computer based on the principle of the differential calculator that uses gear trains as a way of performing complex calculations. On further study, the device proved capable of calculating, among other things, the position of the planets, sidereal time, and eclipses.

And all of this by using technology that was never realized to exist in the ancient world and after it vanished, didn't reappear until the 14th century. Even today the device sparks interest as the design is adapted to not only museum exhibits, but also watches.

First reported in the New York Times, the new date for the Antikythera Mechanism is the result of work by James Evans, professor of physics at University of Puget Sound, and Christián Carman, history of science professor at University of Quilmes, Argentina.

The new date is based on a reconstruction of the device made by John Steele of Brown University in 2008. This involved matching the calculations against Babylonian eclipse records and applying an analysis that took into account lunar and solar anomalies, solar eclipses, and lunar and solar eclipse­s cycles that might have been missing and other inaccuracies – not the least of which might have been caused by the fact that much of the device was never salvaged.

By a process of elimination, Evans and Carman eliminated hundreds of eclipse patterns until a match was found that placed the earliest eclipse on the device matching the year 205 BC. According to the researchers, such a date not only places the manufacturing date perhaps a hundred years earlier than the previous date of about 100 BC, but also indicates that the mathematics used to design the device were derived from Babylonian methods rather than Greek trigonometry, which did not exist at that time.

The researchers also put forward another tantalizing possibility opened by the new date. According to Cicero, there was a story that a device much like the one found at Antikythera was made by Archimedes and captured by the Roman general Marcellus after the sack of Syracuse and the death of Archimedes in 212 BC. It is remotely possible that it and the Antikythera Mechanism may be one and the same. The researchers emphasize that the correlation is conjectural, but it does suggest that the age of the device is not only now known, but that a famous name can be given to its maker.

The results were published in the Archive for History of Exact Science.

Source: University of Puget Sound

7 comments
bobcat4424
The speculation previously was that it was a treasure ship from 86BC and Sulla. That would have placed the device much later and its accuracy would not have been as impressive without updating. A plank from the ship that was dated at 220BC +-43 years was dismissed as an anomoly. But the current speculation that it was from Marcellus in 220BC fits much better. The device would have been new and of impressive accuracy.
JDS
Aliens man, aliens
wle
for once i can 'like' something and not have to pooh-pooh wle
hibni
It must be said that the technology of the same level of the Antikythera Mechanism was achieved in 14th century thanks to the study of ancient greek texts (some of which were available at the time but seem lost today). Indeed, the same Renaissance ("re-born") originated from the recovery of ancient knowledge due to the study of classical sources. And, by the way, greek trigonometry DID exist in 3rd century B.C.; it was infact used by Aristarchus of Samos, the creator of heliocentric model.
Purple-Stater
This definitely proves that the device was built with DATA at least a century older than previously though. Very cool speculation though, and it's always a possibility.
Joseph Mertens
King Solomon "There is nothing new under the sun." Watch one of the documentaries on how long it takes for modern buildings and equipment to be completely destroyed without maintenance by the environment, in 200 years all most nothing of the modern world would remain.
RehRek
The thing that gets me when I see something like this, something so advanced from so long ago. These things rival those made in very modern times. How did advancements like this one get swept under the carpet. Then I think of all the backwards thinking from people that were and are in power. These people are the ones holding us back, they are the determent of society. I can't help but wonder where we would be today had they not been able to burn the books and destroy all the things they didn't understand. It's truly a shame, but what's worse is that the rich and powerful are still doing it today. I see some advancements in technology that are amazing and wonderful and it's great that we are making some amazing headway. But there are still a lot of things being held back out of the need for greed and power. But like those things from so long ago, they are out of reach for most of the populations understanding to grasp. You know it exists, look at the drug companies, patents on things that should not be patented. Altering our food supply to "own" it. Pumping our livestock full of drugs so that they can produce more. Dumping chemicals. Filing or buying patents, just so that others can't use them. Persecuting for telling those in power that the world is not flat. Do you think we're so different today? I don't, look at us, we still have a large segment of our population that look to a book for guidance that was written by men hundreds of years ago for the purpose of control. We still have slave trade and human trafficking. We have people that cannot cook unless there are instructions on the box. We have people and companies that buy up supply to control demand. The list goes on and on. We're not so different. I really think that we are limitless, and only hold ourselves back. -rehrek