Scientists probe 2,000-year-old Greek computer

'Antikythera Mechanism' may be planetary calculator

A bronze Greek device constructed in around 80BC could be the world's oldest computer, joint British-Greek research seems to suggest.

The "Antikythera Mechanism" - consisting more than 30 bronze dials and wheels - was recovered from the wreck of a cargo ship off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900, the Scotsman reports. Its exact purpose was unknown, although a previous theory centred on it being used to calculate the movement of the planets then known to the Greeks: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

The researchers from the universities of Cardiff, Athens and Thessalonika now believe they are close to cracking the mystery, by bringing to bear very modern X-ray technology which has revealed a previously-hidden Greek inscriptions which may confirm the planetary hypothesis.

The Antikythera Mechanism. Photos: X-Tek

The imaging was done by the X-Tek Group using a "unique" and snappily-named "400kV microfocus Computed Tomography System". British team leader Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University enthused: "The outstanding results obtained from X-Tek's 3-D X-rays are allowing us to make a definitive investigation of the Mechanism. I do not believe it will ever be possible to do better."

The exact nature of the inscriptions is not reported, and while Athens university researcher Xenophon Moussas is reported as saying the "newly discovered text seems to confirm that the mechanism was used to track planetary bodies", Edmunds advised caution. Acknowledging there was one word identified which may give an indication of the device's purpose, he said lots of decipherment work remained. He told El Reg: "It's still up in the air, and there's plenty of work yet to be done."

If the Antikythera Mechanism is indeed what the investigators believe it is, then there are further suggestions that it may be based on a heliocentric view of the solar system - highly unusual at a time when most Greeks accepted Aristotle's view that the universe revolved around the Earth.

According to Michael Wright, the curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum in London - who in 2002 advanced the planetary calculator theory - the device may have been constructed in an academy "founded by the Stoic philosopher Poseidonios on the Greek island of Rhodes". Poseidonios's student Cicero later described a device with "similarities" to the Antikythera Mechanism.

Although the researchers seem close to discovering the device's purpose, one poser still remains, as Edmunds explained: "The real question is, 'What was the device actually for?' Was it a used to predict calendars? Was it simply a teaching tool? The new text we have discovered should help answer these questions".

According to Yanis Bitsakis of Athens University, the challenge is to "place this device into a scientific context, as it comes almost out of nowhere ... and flies in the face of established theory that considers the ancient Greeks were lacking in applied technical knowledge".

Edmunds agreed, saying: "I think it is a great testament to the sophistication of the Greeks and how far they advanced before the jackboot of the Romans came through." ®

Sponsored: Driving business with continuous operational intelligence