Antikythera Mechanism tracked the sun, moon and planets
An international team of scientists recently determined, using cutting-edge technology, that the once-mysterious Antikythera Mechanism was a mechanical crank-operated elaborate astronomical calendar. The Antikythera Mechanism, which was originally housed in a wooden box the size of a toaster oven, is considered the world’s first mechanical computer.
Discovered in 1901 in a mid-first-century B.C.E. shipwreck off the coast of the southern Greek island that gave its name to the mechanism, the Antikythera computer initially paled in comparison to the bronzes, jewelry and coins found alongside it. However, the gears and the unknown use of the mechanism soon attracted a host of varying hypotheses.
The team of scientists used new scanning and imaging technology to read 3,500 letters—some only 1/20 of an inch tall—inscribed on the 2,000-year-old Antikythera computer.
From these letters, which were only a quarter of the original text, the Antikythera computer emerges as a solar and lunar calendar that displayed the position of the planets, the sun and the moon in relation to the Zodiac. Interestingly, the advanced calendar was even capable of determining the color of forthcoming eclipses, prompting researchers to hypothesize that the Antikythera computer served a predictive and astrological, as well astronomical, function.
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Cardiff University Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics Mike Edmunds says that the inscription reads less like an instruction manual and more like a brief museum display description, the Associated Press reports.
Alexander Jones, Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, emphasizes to the Associated Press that “it was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos.”
“I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device,” Jones added.
While imperfect and inexact, Jones explains that the Antikythera computer is “like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.”
Researchers suggest that the Antikythera computer was manufactured in a workshop on the island of Rhodes between 200 and 70 B.C.E. and was not unique, because a dozen references in Classical literature describe similar devices. However, the technology appears to have been lost, and its advancement would be unparalleled until the Medieval clocks of European cathedrals.
After exhausting almost all the available text, the team hopes that archaeologists revisiting the shipwreck will uncover new fragments or even another similar mechanism. Who knows what insights new discoveries may provide for the Antikythera computer and the ancient Greek view of the heavens.
David Malamud is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.
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