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Antikythera Mechanism

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Did Ancient Greeks Possess Computer Technology?

By James Donahue

Among the anomalies of the world is the "Antikythera Mechanism," a rusted block of metal gears and parts discovered on an ancient Roman shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea more than a century ago.

After sponge divers removed artefacts from a sunken cargo ship in 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais found a corroded gear wheel mixed in the mud-packed items. Since then, another 81 parts, including 30 hand-cut bronze gears have been found. The largest gear has 27 cogs.

The so-called "mechanism" has perplexed historians ever since because nobody expected early civilizations of that time to have known, or used such technology. While its origins are uncertain, careful examination of inscriptions on some of the parts suggest it was made around 100 to 150 B.C.

Using advanced imaging techniques, an Anglo-Greek.team of scientists recently probed the block of parts within what has turned out to be a complex geared device. They theorized in an article published in the journal Nature that the mechanism was a form of computer-calculator that could have been used to predict solar, planet and star movements, and even solar and lunar eclipses.

The elaborate system of gears also may have displayed planetary alignments.

The team wrote that this mechanism was "technically more complex than any known device for at least a millennium afterwards."

Even though much of the mechanism has been lost, mostly from the front, what remains has excited researchers who say it provides a glimpse into the world of ancient Greek astronomy.

Using new imaging systems like three-dimensional X-ray, microfocus computed tomography, the team captured detailed images from within the device and thus uncovered new information.

Based on what is left of it, the team has even gone so far as to describe what the original device might have looked like. They envision it all housed in a rectangular wooden frame with two doors. The calculator might have been operated by a hand crank.

The major structure had a single, central dial on a front plate that showed the Greek zodiac and an Egyptian calendar on concentric scales. On the back, two dials displayed information about the timing of lunar cycles and eclipse patterns.

Such a device could have been used for timing agricultural and religious festivals. Since it was found on a sunken ship, some believe it also might have been used for navigation.

--January 2007