Function of the World’s Oldest Known Computer Has Been Revealed

June 24, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Antikythera mechanism fragment
Photo credit: Marsyas/wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scientists have deciphered text carved into the mysterious device.

Recovered from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, the 2,100-year-old, Antikythera mechanism is the world’s oldest known analog computer.

The apparatus is about the size of a shoebox and composed of interlocking gears surrounded by a series of dials. Powered by a hand crank, ancient Greeks used the device to track the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and moon through the zodiac, the position of the planets, and to predict eclipses. Nothing similar would be made for another 1,000 years.

Many of the recovered fragments of the device contain ancient Greek text, mostly unreadable due to corrosion. Over the past decade, new imaging techniques like 3D X-ray scans have provided clearer images of these inscriptions, revealing new details about the device’s function.

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The team of scientists were able to decipher 3,500 characters of explanatory text gracing the front and back of the device. A set of papers describing their findings were recently published in the journal Almagest. According to the team, the nature of the text suggests the device likely had an educational function.

"It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos," team member Alexander Jones from New York University told the Associated Press.

"It's like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment."

It wasn't quite a manual, but more like a long label you would see in a museum to describe a display, according to another team member, Mike Edmunds, from Cardiff University.

82 fragments of the device have been discovered thus far, but pieces are still missing. In their latest expedition, which ended on June 11, the team pulled more than 60 artifacts from the ancient shipwreck, though no new pieces of the Antikythera mechanism were recovered.

"There's always the hope that more will come out of new dives," Jones told Live Science.

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