Scientists may finally have made a complete digital model for the Cosmos panel of a 2,000 years old mechanical device called the Antikythera mechanism, that is believed to be the world’s first computer.
First discovered in a Roman era shipwreck by Greek sponge divers in year 1900, the fragments of a shoebox size contraption, once filled-with gears and used to predict the movements of heavenly bodies, has both baffled & amazed generations of researchers ever since.
The discovered fragments made-up just one-third of a larger device: a highly-sophisticated hand-powered gear-box capable of accurately predicting the motions of the 5 planets known to the ancient Greeks, also as the sun, the phases of the moon and the solar & lunar eclipses, displaying all of them relative to the timings of ancient events like the Olympic Games.
Yet despite years of painstaking research & debate, scientists were never able to fully replicate the mechanism that drove the astonishing device or the calculations used-in its design, from the battered & corroded brass fragment discovered in the wreck.
But now researchers at the University College London, say they’ve fully re-created the design of the device, from the ancient calculations used-to create it and are now putting their own contraption to-see if their design works.
“Our work reveals the Antikythera Mechanism as a beautiful conception, translated-by superb engineering into a device of genius,” the researchers wrote in the open-access journal Scientific Reports. “It challenges all our preconceptions about the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.”
Why recreate Antikythera?
The researchers wanted to re-create the device because all the mystery surrounding it, as a way to possibly get to the bottom of numerous questions. Additionally, nobody had ever created a model of the so-called Cosmos, that reconciled with all of the physical evidence.
“The distance-between this device’s complexity and others made at the same time is infinite,” co-author Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at UCL. “Frankly, there’s nothing like it that has ever been found. It is out of this world.”
The intricate gears that made-up the device mechanism of a scale, you could expect to find-out in a grandfather clock, but the single other gears discovered from around the same period are the much larger ones that went into things like ballistas or large crossbows & catapults.
This sophistication brings-up tons of questions on the manufacturing process that could have made such a uniquely intricate contraption, also why it had been discovered as the only known device of its kind on an ancient sunken ship off the island of Antikythera.
“What is it doing on that ship? We only found one-third; where are the other two-thirds? Have they corroded-away? Did it ever work?” Wojcik said. “These are questions that we can only really answer through experimental archaeology. It is like answering how they built Stonehenge, let’s get 200 people with some rope & a big stone and try to pull-it across Salisbury Plain. That is a bit like what we are trying to do here.”
Making the first computer
To create the model, researchers drew on all of the past research on the device, including that of Michael Wright, a former-curator at Science Museum in London, who had previously-constructed a working replica.
Using inscriptions found on the mechanism & a mathematical model of how the planets moved that was first devised-by the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, they were able to create a computer model for a mechanism of overlapping gears that fit inside a just barely 1 inch deep (2.5 centimeters) compartment.
Their model re-creates each gear & rotating dial, to show, how the planets, the sun & the moon move across the Zodiac (the ancient map of the stars) on the front face & the phases of the moon & eclipses on the back. It replicates the now-outdated ancient Greek assumption that all of the heavens-revolved around the Earth.
Now that the computer model has been made, the researchers want to make physical versions, first using modern techniques in order that they can check that the device works, then employing the techniques that could have been used-by the ancient Greeks.
“There is no evidence that the ancient Greeks were able-to build something like this. It really is a mystery,” said Wojcik. “The only way to test if they could to try to build it the ancient Greek way.”
“And there’s also lot of debate about who it was for & who built it. A lot of people say it was Archimedes,” Wojcik said. “He lived around the same time was constructed and no one else had the same-level of engineering ability that he did. It was also a Roman shipwreck.”
Archimedes was killed-by Romans during the Siege of Syracuse, after the weapons he invented, did not prevent them from capturing the city.
Mysteries also remain on whether the ancient Greeks used similar techniques to make other, yet to be discovered, devices or whether copies of the Antikythera mechanism are waiting to be found.
“It is a bit like having a TARDIS appear in the Stone Age,” said Wojcik, referring to Doctor Who’s time-traveling spacecraft.