Antikythera mechanism: World’s first analog computer

Technology 30 Apr 2021 Contributor
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Antikythera mechanism

With time, we have lost most of our ancestor’s manuscripts and technological inventions. There are many that we inherited but also lost plenty. Ancient Greece was known for its great philosophers and inventors. They had contributed enormously to mankind. During the spring of 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kontos and his team found a shipwreck. This wreck of a Roman cargo ship was found at a depth of 45 meters near the Greek island of Antikythera. Amongst the artifacts recovered, was a hand-powered orrery. This is considered to be the world’s first analog computer! It was retrieved in July 1901 and the Antikythera mechanism was supposed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance. A team of scientists from the University College London recently studied it and was able to shed light on the working principle of the same. Their work got published in the Scientific Reports.

The Antikythera mechanism

This mechanism or device is 2000 years old artifact. It is an ancient Greek astronomical calculator and the most complex engineering piece to have survived since then. The device was used to predict the positions of planets, the Sun, and as well as the Moon. It also had the capability to predict the time of the solar and lunar eclipses. It has a complex combination of 30 surviving gears. Originally the Antikythera mechanism was a single encrusted piece. Soon afterward it fractured into three major pieces and then broke into other smaller pieces during cleaning and handling. There is a total of 82 known fragments, of which seven are mechanically significant. There are also 16 smaller parts that contain fractional and incomplete inscriptions.

What has been uncovered in this study?

Over the century, scientists have put their efforts to understand how the Antikythera mechanism worked. In 2005, with the help of 3D x-rays and advanced imaging, scientists were able to demonstrate a few of the predictions. Still, the researchers had not completely understood the gearing system present in the front of the mechanism. In this new study, the team found two key figures of 462 years and 442 years on the front cover. These two numbers accurately represent the cycles of Venus and Saturn respectively. To predict the positions of the planets, it is required to observe the variable cycles for a prolonged period. It is astonishing that the Greeks were able to accurately know the cycles some 2000 years ago.

The team also were able to recover the cycles of all the other planets using the Greek mathematical model of Parmenides. On the back cover of the Antikythera mechanism, the inscriptions had a cosmos display description. The team also worked to reconstruct this display. With this discovery, the researchers are closer to completely understand the capabilities of the device.