Mystery of the ancient ‘first computer’: scientists a step closer

Source: Mystery anSource: Andrew Barclay (via Flickr)
Cardiff University researchers have taken part in unravelling the mystery of the ancient 'first computer' found a century ago by divers.

By Catarina Vicente | Contributor

There have been recent developments in research surrounding the very first known ‘computer’.
The ‘very first computer’, as it has been called, is a device discovered in the Greek sea over a century ago, by sponge divers in 1901, who were exploring a merchant ship. The ship is believed to have been on course for Rome from Asia Minor, where it shipwrecked off Antikythera, a Greek island. Among other treasure, the device was largely disregarded as it consisted of segments of corroded brass; despite initial impressions, further research incited more scholarly discussion. Cardiff University researcher Mike Edmunds and his team published scans of the fragments, which revealed details of the inner workings and hidden inscriptions.

This further research has revealed the complexity of the ancient mystery ‘first computer’. It is now known the device’s function was to map the motions of five planets – the sun, moon and the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, phases of the moon, by using a mathematical method described by the Greek philosopher Parmenides, to work out gear arrangements to move planets and other bodies to assume their correct positions. It also had a special ‘Dragon Hand’ to determine solar/lunar eclipses. Made up of around 30 bronze gearwheels connected to dials and pointers, and only 25mm deep, the machinery shows incredible craftmanship. The machine is dated at around 2,000 years old and is considered the world’s oldest analogue computer.

Without a complete understanding of how the device works, researchers at UCL have set forth to reconstruct it with modern mechanisms. There were previous attempts – Michael Wright, a curator of mechanical engineering at the London Science Museum, built a working replica, but much is still unknown about the mystery machine. It is in wary state – only having 2/3rds of its full structure, the remains divided into 82 fragments – this will be particularly difficult. Even if this is achievable, the machine’s purpose is yet unknown, although some dispute a toy, teaching tool, or something else entirely.

A team at UCL has published a paper theorizing a new display of the ancient Greek order of the Universe. Author Tony Freeth, professor of mechanical engineering at UCL, says “Ours is the first model that conforms to the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism.” Dr Adam Wojcik, part of the same team, explains that “This is a key theoretical advance on how the Cosmos was constructed in the Mechanism”. The team will now prove the design by creating the a replica of the mystery ‘first computer’ through ancient techniques.

The device is another example of how much we do not yet know about ancient Greek, as they had advanced methods to manufacture a machine like this. Its existence is contrasted by the fact nothing of the sort has been found before. “It is odd that nothing remotely similar has been found or dug up,” Wojcik said.

For now, research on the device is ongoing, with the team making hasty progress on creating a replica of the device to test their design.

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