HistoryofScience.com Blog

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Deciphering the Operations of the Earliest Analog Computer

Though the Antikthera Mechanism was discovered over 100 years ago, the functions of this device, which is thought to date from 150 to 100 BCE, are only now beginning to be fully understood.

Possibly as significant as understanding its operations are the latest methods of high resolution imaging and three-dimension x-ray tomography used to make the discoveries. The Antikythera Mechanism discovered off Antikythera, Greece in 1901, includes the only specimen preserved from antiquity of a scientifically graduated instrument. It may also be thought of as the earliest extant mechanical calculator, or analog computer.

Applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, experts deciphered inscriptions and reconstructed functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism. This research revealed details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar. Scientists found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.

The discoveries and the methods used are the subject of an absolutely fascinating video available from the Nature website. It includes animations of the way that the Antikthera Mechanism is thought to have operated.

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