Oldest computer 2100 years ago, helped the ancient Greece to predict astronomical events

The people of ancient Greece were known for their architecture, arts, Olympics and philosophy. They were a learned group of people who gave the world the theories of mathematics and geometry as well as philosophy and astronomy. In fact they were so technologically advanced that they had even developed their own computer over 2100 years ago.

It’s true! Ancient Greek astronomers had developed a complicated mechanical device to help them predict astronomical events. It is regarded as humanity’s oldest computer.

The Antikythera Mechanism

In 1901, sponge divers found several artifacts at a ship wreck dating to 1st century B.C near Antikythera, a Greek island that lies between Kythera and Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with several statues, the divers found stray pieces of a complicated mechanism containing gears. This mechanism is believed today, to be the world’s oldest analog computer.

The device was named the Antikythera mechanism after the location where it was found. The bronze object about 20 cms high began to disintegrate soon after it was recovered from the depths of the water. Using 21st century tools and equipment, scientists have been able to discover the astonishing secrets, a century later.

“It’s a lot of detail for us because it comes from a period from which we know very little about Greek astronomy and essentially nothing about the technology, except what we gather from here, so these very small texts are a very big thing for us,” Alexander Jones, a professor of the history of ancient science at NYU, told The AP.

“We are not quite sure how to interpret [the inscriptions], but they could hark back to suggestions that the color of an eclipse was some sort of omen or signal,” said Mike Edmunds from the University of Cardiff’s astrophysics department.

Its workings

The mechanism is made out of bronze and contains several interlocking gears, each performing precise operations. Believed to be the size of a shoe box, the doors and faces are covered with inscriptions in Greek. Analyzing the inscriptions, scientists think that the device was used for astronomy and maybe even as a calendar.

Though 30 gears are visible, it is believed that the original structure contained over 72 gears. Each gear was hand-crafted and had between 15 and 233 triangular teeth. On the front of the mechanism a dial shows the position of the Sun, Moon in the zodiac and a small ball for displaying lunar phases.

With the help of the inscriptions, scientists have been able to explain the use of the mechanism. The astronomical theories of moon cycles given to us by the Greeks, have been used by the device to predict phenomenon such as eclipses and moon phases.

It has been nearly impossible to copy this ancient mechanism. However recently using over 1500 lego technic pieces, scientists have tried to recreate it. Watch the video in the notes for a fascinating look at its clone.

“This is the first instance we have in the mechanism of any real mention of astrology rather than astronomy,” said Edmunds.

The modern computing

In 1936, Alan Turing published a paper that is now recognised as the foundation of computer science.

Turing analysed what it meant for a human to follow a definite method or procedure to perform a task. For this purpose, he invented the idea of a ‘Universal Machine’ that could decode and perform any set of instructions. Ten years later he would turn this revolutionary idea into a practical plan for an electronic computer, capable of running any program.

Alan Turing was not a well known figure during his lifetime. But today he is famous for being an eccentric yet passionate British mathematician, who conceived modern computing and played a crucial part in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in WW2.

He was also a victim of mid-20th Century attitudes to

homosexuality – he was chemically castrated before dying at the age of 41.

In March 1946 Turing produced a detailed design for what was called the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE.)

This was a digital computer in the modern sense, storing programs in its memory. His report emphasised the unlimited range of applications opened up by this technological revolution, and software developments ahead of parallel American developments.