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By the Rivers of Babylon, where the Antikythera Mechanism laid down

Boffins have new theory about origins of 'first computer'

The Antikythera Mechanism

A new analysis of the Antikythera Mechanism, the intriguing meshed gears device hauled from the Aegean in 1900, suggests it may be of Babylonian origin.

The Mechanism is engraved in Greek and is widely thought to have been able to track the cycle of the Moon and of both Solar and Lunar eclipses, among other natural phenomena. Some have suggested that the device might have been the work of Archimedes, as the Syracusan was known to be a dab hand with gears and a fine mathematician.

Nothing like the Mechanism has been found since, despite recent attempts. No artefact displaying similar sophistication is known to have been manufactured for about a thousand years after the Mechanism's supposed creation, so it remains an object of intense interest.

Enter this paper, titled “On the epoch of the Antikythera mechanism and its eclipse predictor” from the journal Archive for History of Exact Science.

The paper's authors - James Evans, professor of physics at University of Puget Sound, and Christián Carman, history of science professor at University of Quilmes, Argentina – suggest that the Mechanism's workings point to Babylonian maths informing its construction.

That's not in the slightest remarkable: anyone who's watched even the doggrel version of history on offer in 300 knows there was contact between the two regions well before the 200 BC date at which the Mechanism is thought to have been made. That the two civilisations should borrow from each other is also utterly anodyne: by 200BC much of the Mediterranean and what we now call the Middle East was ruled by Hellenic monarchs claiming connection to Alexander the Great's empire. Those ancient nations shared a language and thought of themselves as fellow Greeks (or Macedonians) even when at war. Cultural - exchange in the region was therefore normal.

The paper notes that the authors' analysis leaves open many, many, topics for further conjecture. That the Mechanism was found in Greek waters and bears Greek inscriptions does hint at Greek origins.

In other words, the Mechanism is perhaps now a little more mysterious, as its origins may now be even more complex than first imagined. ®

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