The Antikythera mechanism is officially the oldest computer ever

There really is a computer older than that thing in your basement.

While most of us think that Apple IIe collecting dust in the basement qualifies as an ancient computer, there is one mechanical brain that was the latest high-tech advancement around 200 B.C.—and nothing even close would be seen again for at least a thousand years.

Scientists have speculated that the Antikythera mechanism had something to do with astronomy ever since the mysterious twisted mass of gears and dials was fished out of a long-forgotten shipwreck over a hundred years ago. Found off the coast of Greece’s Antikythera island, the steampunk-esque contraption was missing pieces (which are probably still at the bottom of the Aegean) and covered in indecipherable writing. While incomplete, it was intriguing enough to draw scientists, who only walked away perplexed after trying to figure out its exact purpose with the limited technology of the time. Some of the inscriptions were small enough — or strange enough — to spark the imaginations of early sci-fi writers, who wanted to believe the thing was dropped into the ocean by aliens.

Until recently, only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of characters inscribed on the device’s multitude of gears were readable with the help of X-rays, giving only a nebulous idea of its purpose. After a decade-long effort involving hyper-advanced scanning and imaging techniques, an international team of scientists have finally been able to demystify many more of the inscriptions. Translations confirm that the Antikythera mechanism was actually used as an astronomical computer that predicted the future through the positions of planets and stars.

Professor Alexander Jones, who teaches the history of ancient science at New York University, is part of that international team who spent most of the past decade trying to make out the cryptic words engraved into those rusted gears. Jones compared the material he and his colleagues previously had to work with to "something on the radio with a lot of static,” as opposed to the recent hi-def images that are readable as ancient Greek. He emphasized that "It's a lot of detail for [the international team], because it comes from a period from which we know very little about Greek astronomy and essentially nothing about the technology, except what we gather from [the Antikythera findings].” There could possibly be even more revelations in the missing pieces that are waiting to be found in that sunken ship’s watery grave.

So, what, exactly, is the operating system for your old Mac’s even more ancient predecessor? Think of it as a primordial space calculator that ran on elbow grease instead of battery power. Cranking the knob of this miniature galaxy would give an accurate reading of where celestial bodies were in their orbits by setting a number of gears and hands in motion — one for the sun, one for the moon and one for each planet the human eye doesn’t need a telescope to see after dark. It also showed the stars’ and planets' positions in the Zodiac. At least you didn’t need a horoscope to tell you when Venus was moving into your sign — or when Mercury was going into retrograde. As for those infamous inscriptions, a steady, ancient hand painstakingly scrawled in the exact dates and times particular stars would rise and set. There was a dial on the back that looked like the needle on an LP record but functioned as a calendar, and another that timed solar and lunar eclipses. There was even a ball-like mechanism the position of which would change with lunar phases. Werewolves would have had no excuse to forget a full moon.

While the Antikythera mechanism hasn’t yet disclosed all its secrets, it has been able to give us insight into the advanced intelligence of a civilization that can now add computers to its already impressive resume as the birthplace of philosophy, democracy and, of course, astronomy. Not bad for an artifact that was brushed off by post-Victorian archaeologists who were more interested in the treasure trove of shiny objects that surfaced with it.

(Source: Universe Today)

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