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Ancient sky calculator awes scientists

Nov. 29, 2006
Courtesy Cardiff University
and World Science staff

A group of sci­en­tists claims to have un­rav­elled the se­crets of a 2,000-year-old com­put­er, which they say could trans­form the way we think about the an­cient world.

Mike Ed­munds and Tony Freeth of Car­diff Uni­ver­si­ty in Car­diff, U.K., led the team whose mem­bers be­lieve they have fi­nal­ly cracked the work­ings of the An­ti­ky­thera Mech­an­ism, a clock-like as­tro­nom­i­cal cal­cu­la­tor from the sec­ond cen­tu­ry B.C.

Courtesy Jo Marchant, Nature 


Di­vers ex­plor­ing a ship­wreck off the is­land of An­ti­ky­thera at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry found  rem­nants of a bro­ken wood­en and bronze case con­tain­ing more than 30 gears. 

Sci­en­tists have been try­ing to re­con­struct it ev­er since. The new re­search sug­gests it is more so­phis­ti­cat­ed than an­y­one thought.

De­tailed study of the gears show the mech­an­ism could track as­tro­nom­i­cal move­ments with re­mark­a­ble pre­ci­sion, Ed­munds and col­leagues said. The de­vice could fol­low the sun’s and moon’s move­ments through the Zo­di­ac, a belt-like re­gion of the heav­ens sur­round­ing the plane of the earth’s or­bit and of the sun’s ap­par­ent an­nu­al path.

The machine could al­so pre­dict eclipses and rec­re­ate the ir­reg­u­lar or­bit of the moon, the re­search­ers said, and might have pre­dicted the po­si­tions of some or all of the plan­ets.

The find­ings sug­gest Greek tech­nol­o­gy was far more ad­vanced than pre­vi­ously thought, Ed­munds and Freeth said: no oth­er civ­i­li­sa­tion is known to have made an­y­thing as com­pli­cat­ed for anoth­er thou­sand years.

“This de­vice is just ex­traor­di­nary, the on­ly thing of its kind. The de­sign is beau­ti­ful, the as­tron­o­my is ex­act­ly right. The way the me­chan­ics are de­signed just makes your jaw drop. Whoev­er has done this has done it ex­treme­ly well,” Ed­munds said.

The team used a new, pow­er­ful X-Ray com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy to help them study cor­rod­ed frag­ments of the ma­chine. Com­put­er gi­ant Hewlett-Packard Corp. pro­vid­ed im­ag­ing tech­nol­o­gy to en­hance the sur­face de­tails of the ma­chine.

The mech­an­ism is in over 80 pieces and stored in con­trolled con­di­tions in Ath­ens where it can­not be touched. Recre­at­ing its work­ings was a dif­fi­cult, pains­tak­ing pro­cess, in­volv­ing as­tro­no­mers, math­e­mati­cians, com­put­er ex­perts, script an­a­lysts and conserva­tion ex­perts, Ed­munds and col­leagues said.

The team is to un­veil its full find­ings at a two-day in­ter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence in Ath­ens from No­vem­ber 30 to De­cem­ber 1. The re­search al­so ap­pears in the Nov. 30 is­sue of the jour­nal Na­ture. The re­search­ers are now hop­ing to cre­ate a com­put­er mod­el of how the ma­chine worked, and, in time, a full work­ing rep­li­ca. It is still un­cer­tain what the an­cient Greeks used the mech­an­ism for, or how wide­spread this tech­nol­o­gy was, they said.

“It does raise the ques­tion what else were they mak­ing at the time. In terms of his­tor­ic and scar­ci­ty val­ue, I have to re­gard this mech­an­ism as be­ing more val­u­a­ble than the Mo­na Lisa,” Ed­munds said.


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A group of scientists claims to have unravelled the secrets of a 2,000-year-old computer which they say could transform the way we think about the ancient world. Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth of Cardiff University in Cardiff, U.K., led the team. Members believe they have finally cracked the workings of the Antikythera Mechanism, a clock-like astronomical calculator dating from the second century B.C. Remnants of a broken wooden and bronze case containing more than 30 gears was found by divers exploring a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera at the turn of the 20th century. Scientists have been trying to reconstruct it ever since. The new research suggests it is more sophisticated than anyone previously thought. Detailed work on the gears in the mechanism show that it could track astronomical movements with remarkable precision, Edmunds and colleagues said. The device could follow the sun’s and moon’s movements through the Zodiac, the belt-like region of the heavens surrounding the plane of the earth’s orbit and of the sun’s apparent annual path. It could also predict eclipses and recreate the irregular orbit of the moon, the researchers said, and might have predicted the positions of some or all of the planets. The findings suggest that Greek technology was far more advanced than previously thought, Edmunds and Freeth said: no other civilisation is known to have created anything as complicated for another thousand years. “This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely well,” Edmunds said. The team used a new, powerful X-Ray computer technology to help them study corroded fragments of the machine. Computer giant Hewlett-Packard provided imaging technology to enhance the surface details of the machine. The mechanism is in over 80 pieces and stored in controlled conditions in Athens where it cannot be touched. Recreating its workings was a difficult, painstaking process, involving astronomers, mathematicians, computer experts, script analysts and conservation experts, Edmunds and colleagues said. The team is unveiling its full findings at a two-day international conference in Athens from November 30 to December 1. The research also appears in the Nov. 30 issue of the journal Nature. The researchers are now hoping to create a computer model of how the machine worked, and, in time, a full working replica. It is still uncertain what the ancient Greeks used the mechanism for, or how widespread this technology was, they said. “It does raise the question what else were they making at the time. In terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa,” Edmunds said.