Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ancient Computers

Speaking of solstices, equinoxes and the gloom of Winter, I recently finished reading a very interesting book by Professor D. De Solla Price on ancient analogue computers, specifically: The Antikythera device. This probably should be one of the major jaw-droppers of the 21st century. As usual, fact *IS* stranger than fiction, though it rarely gets the press play that fiction does.

Basically the Antikythera device is a clockwork analogue computer built by an ancient Greek mathematician from Rhodes in the first century BC. It was on board a Roman ship that sank 2100 years ago and was discovered by sponge divers in 1901. So heavily encrusted was the machine that it laid around in the back room of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens for over half a century before X-rays revealed the nature of the intricate mechanism. The computer is designed to accurately predict the position of the earth, moon, sun and various planets visible to the naked eye for any given date by simply turning a handle to the date in question. Keep in mind that the device dates from 80 BC, or about 1600 years before Galileo was almost burned at the stake for publishing the fact that the earth revolved around the sun. That such a device existed at all before the time of Leonardo da Vinci is so mind-bogglingly amazing, and the assumptions about the knowledge of the solar system so incredibly advanced, that it only opens up the question of what else the ancients knew about which we still haven't discovered? An earlier Scientific American article by Dr. De Solla Price suggests that the beginnings of clockwork in Europe actually were as a result of the Arab's familiarity with ancient Greek writings which have subsequently been lost to us. Through the Moorish conquests in Spain and the Crusades the information may have been transmitted to Europe. He concludes by saying:

On the one hand the Islamic devices knit the whole story together, and demonstrate that it is through ancestry and not mere coincidence that the Antikythera mechanism resembles a modern clock. On the other hand they show that the Antikythera mechanism was no flash in the pan but was a part of an important current in Hellenistic civilisation. History has contrived to keep that current dark to us, and only the accidental underwater preservation of fragments that would otherwise have crumbled to dust has now brought it to light. It is a bit frightening to know that just before the fall of their great civilisation the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology

An orrery maker in England has made a modern reconstruction of the Antikythera device based on De Solla's research. More recent research has given us an even better understanding of the device and its potential. Such companies as Hewlett Packard (makers of digital computers!) have built specific surface mapping technology especially for this project. Here is a link to a good introduction to the history and significance of this object.

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