Skip to comments.Did The Ancient Greeks Make A Computer?
Posted on 11/01/2003 9:21:03 AM PST by Holly_P
....At the western entrance to the Aegean Sea, midway between the islands of Crete and Kythera, rises little Antikythera. It was off that island in 1900 that a sponge diver found, on the bottom, the wreck of an ancient ship loaded with statues, amphorae and other objects. ....This wreck was the first great under water find of modern archaeology. It yielded not only a rich hoard of art treasures but an astonishingly sophisticated scientific instrument. But while the marble and bronze statues and the pottery were recognized at once as the work of Greek artisans around the time of Christ, the bronze instrument, encrusted with calcareous deposits lay ignored. As it gradually dried, the ancient wood casing and internal parts cracked and split into four flat fragments, the inner sides of which revealed parts of geared wheels together with some barely legible inscriptions. Thereafter, as cleaning exposed more gears and inscriptions, scholars affirmed that the device was a navagational tool, an astrolabe, used to determine the altitude of the sun and other celestial bodies. This identification was remarkable enough, considering that only simple implements had previously turned up from the Hellenistic period: yet even so it was, more and more obviously inadequate for so complex assembly. ....What, then, could it be, this mysterious Antikythera mechanism? ....In 1951, an American historian of science, Professor Derek de Solla Price of Yale, became intrigued by the riddle. While other scholars established that the wrecked ship, almost certainly bound for Italy with wares from Asia Minor and the Greek islands, had floundered in about 78 B.C., Price studied the device himself. At last, in 1959, he announced in print that the mechanism was, as he called it in his article, "An Ancient Greek Computer"; one that indicated by means of dials and pointers, the motions of the sun and moon past, present and future and synchronously, the moon's phases. ....A computer- in the first century B.C.? The claim excited much skepticism and one retired professor insisted that the device had to be a modern orrery- of the kind he had seen as a child used to demonstrate the Copernican system- which had somehow intruded on the wreck. (He was, in fact, not far off on it's function but totally off on its date.) Certain popular writers, by contrast, eagerly accepted the identification of the device as a computer- but asserted it could only have been made by extraterrestrials from a technologically superior civilization. ....Unfazed by any of this, Price continued to puzzle out the numerous small but critical problems the mechanism presented, attemting to complete computing the number of teeth on the gear wheels (none more than partially visible) and determining as best he could, which gears meshed with which others. The work went slowly until 1971, when learning that gamma-radiography could see through solid matter, Price persuaded the Greek authorities to let his collaborator, Dr. Karakalos take gammaradiographs of the fragments. These revealed so much detail, so clearly, that after analyzing them the two men could confidently relate the gear ratios to known astronomical and calendrical data and in 1974, Price submitted his definitive findings to the American Philosophical Society. ....Activated by hand, the Antikythera mechanism consists of a train of more than thirty gears of greatly varied sizes meshing in parallel planes but its most spectacular feature is a differential gear permitting two shafts to rotate at different speeds, like the one that allows the rear wheels of a modern car to turn at different rates on a curve. ....There is no mention of the Antikythera device in ancient literature but a similar mechanism was described by Cicero and later by Ovid and others: this was an ingenious planetarium, simulating the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets, that had been devised in the third century B.C. by Archimedes. Cicero, incidentally, was on Rhodes between 79 and 77 B.C., just as the Antikythera mechanism was presumably lost at sea; while there he saw a geared planetarium that may have been built by Posidonios, a renowned geographer (among other things) who lectured in Rhodes. ....The Antikythera device derives then, from Archimedes, either by a gradual, unrecorded evolution or by the massive innovation of some unknown genius, perhaps of the school of Posidonios. If only for his use of the differential gear, "one of the greatest basic mechanical inventions of all time," its maker should, says Price, "be accorded the highest honors."
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I thought it was fascinating. To me it is plausible that a lot of things have been invented more than once, so why not an ancient Greek navigational device? Our history has been pretty chaotic and violent -- there is probably a lot of knowledge that has been discovered and lost and rediscovered centuries later. If any ancient person could have had an understanding of the motion of the planets approaching that of Copernicus, it would have to have been some ancient Greek. The ancient people did seem to be able to navigate better than one might think -- maybe they knew more than we give them credit for.
Imagine what we could have learned if the library at Alexanderia hadn't burned down.
And somewhere someone in HR wants to know why they can't get the latest version of Office to run on it.
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