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Secrets of ancient computer revealed (2006-11-30)

CLICK TO ENLARGE: AntikytheraAfter a century of study, scientists have unlocked the secrets of a mysterious 2,100-year-old device known as the “Antikythera mechanism,” showing it to be a complex and uncannily accurate astronomical computer.

The mechanism, recovered in more than 80 highly corroded fragments from a sunken Roman ship, could predict the positions of the sun and planets, show the location of the moon and forecast eclipses.

The international team of scientists reported today that the device from the first century B.C., the earliest known example of an arrangement of gear wheels, shows a technological sophistication that was not seen again until clockwork mechanisms were introduced in the 14th century.

The results “imply that Greek technology was much more advanced in this area than was previously thought,” said the team’s leader, physicist Mike G. Edmunds of Cardiff University, United Kingdom. “If they could do this, what else could they do?”

A bigger question, according to science historian Francois Charette of Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, Germany, is why the technology disappeared for more than 1,400 years before reappearing in a less advanced form.

“Much of the mind-boggling technological sophistication available in some parts of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman world was simply not transmitted further,” he wrote in an editorial accompanying the team’s report in the journal Nature.

The device was found in 1901 by Greek sponge divers working in 120 feet of water off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, midway between the southern tip of Greece and Crete. The site is on a major trade route between Rhodes and Rome.

Coins on the ship suggest it sank shortly after 85 B.C. Other artifacts indicate the ship carried a cargo of luxury goods, including statues and silver coins, that probably originated at Rhodes and was bound for Rome. The study suggests that the Antikythera mechanism predates the sinking by 15 to 20 years.

Two dials on the front show the zodiac and a calendar of the days of the year that can be adjusted for leap years, while metal pointers show the positions in the zodiac of the sun, moon and five planets known in antiquity. Two spiral dials on the back show the cycles of the moon and predict eclipses.

The complicated meshing of the gears is a physical representation of the Callippic and Saros astronomical cycles. In the Callippic cycle, the sun, moon and Earth return to the same relative orientations four times in 76 years minus one day. The Saros cycle predicts that, following a solar or lunar eclipse, a similar eclipse will occur 223 lunar months later.

By turning the gears with a hand crank, the user could select a specific day in the past or future and observe the positions of the heavenly objects on that day.

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel • Thomas H. Maugh II

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