Thursday, July 30, 2009

World's first computer may be even older than thought

antik1.jpgJo Marchant, consultant

From Swiss Army knives to iPhones, it seems we just love fancy gadgets with as many different functions as possible. And judging from the ancient Greek
Antikythera mechanism, the desire to impress with the latest multipurpose must-have item goes back at least 2000 years.

This
mysterious box of tricks was a portable clockwork computer, dating from the first or second century BC. Operated by turning a handle on the side, it modelled the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets through the sky, sported a local calendar, star calendar and Moon-phase display, and could even predict eclipses and track the timing of the Olympic games.

I gave a talk on the device at London's
Royal Institution last night. One new clue I mentioned to the origin of the mechanism comes from the Olympiad dial - there are six sets of games named on the dial, five of which have been deciphered so far. Four of them, including the Olympics, were major games known across the Greek world. But the fifth, Naa, was much smaller, and would only have been of local interest.

The Naa games were held in Dodona in northwestern Greece, so Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York has suggested that the mechanism must have been made by or for someone from that area.

Intriguingly, this could mean the device is even older than thought. The inscriptions have been dated to around 100 BC, but according to Jones the device may have been made at latest in the early second century BC, because after that the Romans devastated or took over the Greek colonies in the region, so it's unlikely that people would still have been using the Greek calendar there.

But the highlight for most of the audience - judging from the spontaneous round of applause it received - was this breathtaking new animation (below) of the gearing inside the mechanism. It has been made by
Mogi Vicentini, an Italian astronomer and computer scientist, and it brings the device to life brilliantly.
Judge for yourself, but I think it shows that the mechanism would hold its own against the best of today's luxury gadgets.

Jo Marchant is author of Decoding the Heavens, a book about the Antikythera mechanism. It has been shortlisted for the 2009 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, and is out now in paperback.
Also check http://www.antikythera-mechanism.gr/node/192 they have online a paper published last year, will a lot of details about the games and the dates.




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