Scientists Closer to Solving Mysteries of Ancient Computer

Antikythera mechanism dates back 2K years, turned up in a shipwreck
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 12, 2021 4:35 PM CST
Scientists: We May Have Figured Out Ancient Computer
This 2008 file photo shows the front face of a model replica of an ancient astronomical calculator, known as the Antikythera Mechanism.   (AP Photo/Losmi Chobi)

Scientists say they've taken a huge step toward understanding how a remarkable device often referred to as the world's oldest computer actually worked. The 2,000-year-old "Antikythera mechanism" was a complex astronomical calculator used by the ancient Greeks, per the Guardian. But exactly how it would have presented a working model of the heavens has been a mystery since it was discovered a century ago in a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera—largely because only about a third of the device survived, in more than 80 separate fragments. Previous research focused on unraveling the "back of the mechanism," per the BBC, and a new study in Scientific Reports by researchers at University College London focuses on how the intricate set of gears at the front operated. That link to the study includes video representations.

"The sun, moon and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance," says lead Tony Freeth. "Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself." The researchers now hope to move on from 3D modeling and build a physical replica, though the Guardian notes an issue with that. A modern lathe would be able to shape metal gears to work in the required way, but the ancient Greeks might have been out of luck there. "The concentric tubes at the core of the planetarium are where my faith in Greek tech falters, and where the model might also falter,” says UCL's Adam Wojcik. “Lathes would be the way today, but we can’t assume they had those for metal.” (The shipwreck has yielded other treasures.)

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