Syracuse (Sicily) – An Archimedes creation over 2000 years old was found around 1900. It is now been studied and reconstructed. The researchers have found it to be a fully functioning computer, showing the relative position of heavenly bodies in continuous cycles. The inner workings are gear-based and move via a knob that provides the energy of motion. Archimedes could have used the device to track the position of the moon and five known planets in the past, present or future.
What is a “computer?”
In the 1800s, mechanical adding machines were created that could carry out mathematical operations for the sale of retail items. They even computed how much change to give back. Prior to digital computers, accountants used hand-operated adding machines for heavy arithmetic. Machinists have used metal plates for decades with specifically positioned holes drilled into them which determine all kinds of machine settings for angles, feed rates, threads and more. And most of us over 35 yrs old have at least seen a slide rule. On a side note, the retired SR-71 aircraft, the fastest publicly disclosed military aircraft in the world, was the last aircraft built without the aid of any digital computers.
If we extend the definition of “a computer” to include anything that calculates anything so that just by looking at the device the answer is given, then Archimedes’ creations is certainly a computer.
The wooden box-like device is not much larger than a shoe box. It is comprised of a graduated bronze faceplate, multiple clock-like pointers which revolve independently of each other around a central shaft. Its operation comes from a rotating control knob on the side, causing the internal gearing to track each of the pointers separately. As the knob rotates, the Antikythera device computes the position of the moon and all five of the known planets for any time in the past or present. Moving a month ahead shows its future position, and moving a month backward shows where it has been.
There are several features to the device that deserve special note, and to which Archimedes has now been given special credence. Humans were not able to really perfect the mechanical clock until the 1400s. And yet this device, conceived of in the third century BC (though the discovered device was believed to have been built in the first century BC), shows a masterful clock-like precision in its gearing.
The gear ratios employed use very high fractions to keep everything in sync over time, and the fine-toothed gear assemblies themselves would’ve required extreme master craftsmen at that time. No lathes, vertical mills or other modern machining devices would’ve been available in the traditional sense. Every piece would’ve been crafted entirely by hand using only tools of the day. The fact that the device would have operated at all, let alone as accurately as it did tracking the motion of the moon and planets, is truly remarkable.
The Antikythera device was discovered around the year 1900 by sponge divers off the Aegean island of Symi. A gale force wind blew them off course and they would up on the Greek island community of Antikythera. After the storm ended, the divers found piles of bronze and marbles from what they believed to be an ancient shipwreck. They reported the finding to authorities.
The Greek government claimed the salvage and within 10 months had recovered bronze and marble statues, jewelry, glassware, ornate furniture, along with a relatively uninteresting box encased in weak rock which had formed around it over time. The box went unnoticed until it was being catalogued at a museum in Athens, Greece.
There, the box cracked open and revealed some of its inner secrets. Once the gears and wheels were seen, along with inscriptions clearly written in Greek, the search was on to find out what it was.
At that point, the “Antikythera mechanism,” as it was called, became a matter of much interest. Many people believed it was a hoax. And yet, it has been cited many times over the years as a source of the outright ingenuity of men from that era, and specifically of Archimedes. Until recently, however, nobody had ever fully understood it, let alone reproduced it and made it to work.
The newly constructed device is a 100% reproduction of the original, even using recycled bronze – as the Archimedes device used. Countless researchers devoted large portions of their lives to understanding the device. They X-ray’d it, studied it, theorized over it, discussed with colleagues, and finally began to create a clear picture of what it did, how it worked and everything that was inside. They ultimately created a conceptual 3D model, perfecting its operation even further. Then, they built it.
The 2000 year old computer rose again from its wreck location in Antikythera. After decades of study, the device has demonstrated conclusively the advanced genius of Archimedes, his construction prowess and visionary assemblage of many parts which would not find their way into similar devices for centuries.
Quite a feat for a man who, showing his true devotion to the sciences, is rumored to have been run through with a sword while working out a mathematical proof during the Roman invasion of Syracuse in 212 BC.
There’s a video showing the reconstruction of the device on NewScientist.com.