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Researchers begin to unlock ancient astronomical device’s secrets

After years of trying, scientists believe they have finally discovered the key to understanding what has been dubbed the “world’s oldest computer.”

The 2,100 mechanical device, called the Antikythera Mechanism, has intrigued scientists since it was unearthed on a Roman shipwreck in Greece in 1901.

The hand operated machine, originating in Ancient Greece, is believed to have been used to predict astronomical occurrences, such as eclipses.

The machine has been called the world’s first analogue computer capable of functioning as an astronomical calculator, predicting heavenly movements of the Sun and the Moon, as well as the orbits of the five planets known to the Greeks at the time.

However, only pieces of the shoe-box sized mechanism was discovered, leaving scientists baffled as to its original structure and specific purpose.

Until now, only the back of the device had been understood.

Recently, scientists from University College London figured out a way to use 3D computer modelling to recreate the ancient computer’s front section.

They hope to build a working replica utilizing modern materials.

A paper published on Friday in The Guardian revealed close-up details of the gears and other parts.

“The Sun, Moon and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force,” the paper’s author, Professor Tony Freeth, told BBC News.

Source: Arutz Sheva

Scientists may have solved ancient mystery of ‘first computer’

Researchers claim breakthrough in study of 2,000-year-old Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator found in sea.

From the moment it was discovered more than a century ago, scholars have puzzled over the Antikythera mechanism, a remarkable and baffling astronomical calculator that survives from the ancient world.

The hand-powered, 2,000-year-old device displayed the motion of the universe, predicting the movement of the five known planets, the phases of the moon and the solar and lunar eclipses. But quite how it achieved such impressive feats has proved fiendishly hard to untangle.

Now researchers at UCL believe they have solved the mystery – at least in part – and have set about reconstructing the device, gearwheels and all, to test whether their proposal works. If they can build a replica with modern machinery, they aim to do the same with techniques from antiquity.

“We believe that our reconstruction fits all the evidence that scientists have gleaned from the extant remains to date,” said Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at UCL. While other scholars have made reconstructions in the past, the fact that two-thirds of the mechanism are missing has made it hard to know for sure how it worked.

The mechanism, often described as the world’s first analogue computer, was found by sponge divers in 1901 amid a haul of treasures salvaged from a merchant ship that met with disaster off the Greek island of Antikythera. The ship is believed to have foundered in a storm in the first century BC as it passed between Crete and the Peloponnese en route to Rome from Asia Minor.

The battered fragments of corroded brass were barely noticed at first, but decades of scholarly work have revealed the object to be a masterpiece of mechanical engineering. Originally encased in a wooden box one foot tall, the mechanism was covered in inscriptions – a built-in user’s manual – and contained more than 30 bronze gearwheels connected to dials and pointers. Turn the handle and the heavens, as known to the Greeks, swung into motion.

Michael Wright, a former curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum in London, pieced together much of how the mechanism operated and built a working replica, but researchers have never had a complete understanding of how the device functioned. Their efforts have not been helped by the remnants surviving in 82 separate fragments, making the task of rebuilding it equivalent to solving a battered 3D puzzle that has most of its pieces missing.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the UCL team describe how they drew on the work of Wright and others, and used inscriptions on the mechanism and a mathematical method described by the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, to work out new gear arrangements that would move the planets and other bodies in the correct way. The solution allows nearly all of the mechanism’s gearwheels to fit within a space only 25mm deep.

According to the team, the mechanism may have displayed the movement of the sun, moon and the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on concentric rings. Because the device assumed that the sun and planets revolved around Earth, their paths were far more difficult to reproduce with gearwheels than if the sun was placed at the centre. Another change the scientists propose is a double-ended pointer they call a “Dragon Hand” that indicates when eclipses are due to happen.

The researchers believe the work brings them closer to a true understanding of how the Antikythera device displayed the heavens, but it is not clear whether the design is correct or could have been built with ancient manufacturing techniques. The concentric rings that make up the display would need to rotate on a set of nested, hollow axles, but without a lathe to shape the metal, it is unclear how the ancient Greeks would have manufactured such components.

“The concentric tubes at the core of the planetarium are where my faith in Greek tech falters, and where the model might also falter,” said Wojcik. “Lathes would be the way today, but we can’t assume they had those for metal.”

Whether or not the model works, more mysteries remain. It is unclear whether the Antikythera mechanism was a toy, a teaching tool or had some other purpose. And if the ancient Greeks were capable of such mechanical devices, what else did they do with the knowledge?

“Although metal is precious, and so would have been recycled, it is odd that nothing remotely similar has been found or dug up,” Wojcik said. “If they had the tech to make the Antikythera mechanism, why did they not extend this tech to devising other machines, such as clocks?”

Source: The Guardian

Header: The Antikythera mechanism (Fragment A – Front and Rear); visible is the largest gear in the mechanism, approximately 13 centimetres (5.1 in) in diameter.

The mechanism consists of a complex system of 30 wheels and plates with inscriptions relating to signs of the zodiac, months, eclipses and pan-Hellenic games.

The study of the fragments suggests that this was a kind of astrolabe.

The interpretation now generally accepted dates back to studies by Professor w:en:Derek de Solla Price, who was the first to suggest that the mechanism is a machine to calculate the solar and lunar calendar, that is to say, an ingenious machine to determine the time based on the movements of the sun and moon, their relationship (eclipses) and the movements of other stars and planets known at that time. Later research by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project and scholar Michael Wright has added to and improved upon Price’s work. The mechanism was probably built by a mechanical engineer of the school of Posidonius in Rhodes. Cicero, who visited the island in 79/78 B.C. reported that such devices were indeed designed by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius of Apamea. The design of the Antikythera mechanism appears to follow the tradition of Archimedes’ planetarium, and may be related to sundials. His modus operandi is based on the use of gears. The machine is dated around 89 B.C. and comes from the wreck found off the island of Antikythera. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987.