Mystery of the ‘world’s first computer’ may have been solved
New study reveals the complete structure of the front panel of the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,000-year-old mechanical device used by the ancient Greeks to predict astronomical events.
Researchers from University College London (UCL) believe they have finally figured out the entire structure of the front panel of the perplexing Ancient Greek mechanical device, offering a fresh understanding of how it worked.
The Antikythera Mechanism has left scientists scratching their heads since it was first discovered in a Roman-era shipwreck in 1901 by Greek sponge divers near the Mediterranean island of Antikythera.
The 2,000-year-old device is considered to be the world’s first analogue computer, and was used to forecast positions of the Sun, Moon and the planets, as well as predict lunar and solar eclipses.
However, only about a third of the complex device has survived – leaving researchers baffled about its true form and capabilities.
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The workings on the rear panel of the mechanism were finally figured out by researchers based in the UK and in Greece in 2008. It turn out the dials were used to track the cycles of the Moon, solar eclipses and the dates of several PanHellenic athletic events, including the Ancient Olympic Games. However, the gearing system on the front panel has remained a mystery, until now.
Scientists from University College London believe they have finally cracked this complex 3D puzzle using computer modelling, pushing research a step closer to understanding the full power of the Antikythera Mechanism and how accurately it was able to predict astronomical events.
“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,” said Lead author, Prof Tony Freeth.
“The Sun, Moon and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance.”
The largest surviving fragment, called Fragment A, displays features of bearings, pillars and a block. Another, known as Fragment D, shows an unexplained disk, a 63-tooth gear and plate.
Inscriptions on the back cover include a description of the cosmos display, with the planets moving on rings and indicated by marker beads, which scientists set out to reconstruct.
Using previous X-ray data and an ancient Greek mathematical method, they were able to explain how the cycles for Venus and Saturn were derived, as well as recovering the cycles of all the other planets, where the evidence was missing.
Reader Q&A: If we had today’s technology 2,000 years ago, what would technology be like today?Asked by: Freddie Senior, Sunningdale School
Two-thousand years ago, the human population was about 300 million – 4 per cent of today’s. With 2019 satellite imaging and computer modelling, you’d hope our ancestors would have been able to see that fossil fuels and rising human populations would destroy our climate and cause mass extinctions of life on Earth. So today we would probably have completely clean tech: all of our vehicles would be electric, and all power sources renewable. We would live in places designed to harm our planet the least: enclosed cities built among mountains, deserts or under oceans.
Computers would likely play an even bigger role in our lives, with invisible data processing integrated into every artefact, from clothing to walls.
Our technology would help us to stay healthy, removing almost all disease by artificially boosting our immune system, while brain-computer interfaces would enable us to communicate with our devices through thought alone.
Meanwhile, intercity transport would take place via underground, vacuum-tube trains, travelling at 8,000km/h.
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.