A Two-Thousand-Year-Old Computer

PureInsight | December 3, 2006

Cardiff University

Experts at Cardiff University have led an international team in
unravelling the secrets of a 2,000-year-old computer which could
transform the way we think about the ancient world.


Professor Mike Edmunds of the School of Physics and Astronomy and
mathematician Dr Tony Freeth first heard of the Antikythera Mechanism,
a clock-like astronomical calculator dating from the second century BC,
several years ago. Now they believe they have cracked the centuries-old
mystery of how it actually works.

Remnants of a broken wooden and bronze case containing more than 30
gears was found by divers exploring a shipwreck off the island of
Antikythera at the turn of the 20th century. Scientists have been
trying to reconstruct it ever since. The new research suggests it is
more sophisticated than anyone previously thought.

Detailed work on the gears in the mechanism showed it was able to track
astronomical movements with remarkable precision. The calculator was
able to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the
Zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the
moon. The team believes it may also have predicted the positions of the

The findings suggest that Greek technology was far more advanced than
previously thought. No other civilisation is known to have created
anything as complicated for another thousand years.

Professor Edmunds said: "This device is just extraordinary, the only
thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly
right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop.
Whoever has done this has done it extremely carefully."

The team was made up of researchers from Cardiff, the National
Archeological Museum of Athens and the Universities of Athens and
Thessaloniki, supported by a substantial grant from the Leverhulme
Trust. The researchers were greatly aided by Hertfordshire firm X-Tek,
who developed powerful X-Ray computer technology to help with the study
of corroded fragments of the machine. Computer giant Hewlett-Packard
provided imaging technology to enhance the surface details of the
machine. The mechanism is in 70 pieces and stored in precisely
controlled conditions in Athens where it cannot be touched. Recreating
its workings was a difficult, painstaking process, involving
astronomers, mathematicians, computer experts, script analysts and
conservation experts.

After unveiling their full findings at a two-day international conference in Athens and in the journal Nature,
the researchers are now hoping to create a computer model of how the
machine worked, and, in time, a full working replica. It is still
uncertain what the ancient Greeks used the mechanism for, or how
widespread this technology was.

Professor Edmunds said: "It does raise the question what else were they
making at the time. In term of historic and scarcity value, I have to
regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa."




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