The oldest analogue computer, an astronomical calculator that is over 2000 years old – dating back to 60 BC Ancient Greece – was most likely used to make forecasts about the future, i.e. an astrological device used as a guide for philosophers, says a team of scientists.
Known as the Antikythera Mechanism, researchers say it was the world’s first analogue computer. It was discovered in a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901 – inside a 340 millimetres (13 in) × 180 millimetres (7.1 in) × 90 millimetres (3.5 in) wooden box.
Remaining fragments of the ancient device have been assembled over the past decade using X-ray technology. Scientists say that during this process they have gained amazing insights into its secrets.
A reconstruction of the world’s oldest analogue computer, an astronomical calculator that was used by the Ancient Greeks to predict the future. (Image: dailyhellas.com. Credit: Tony Freeth)
An astrological device to predict the future
We had first been told that the Antikythera Mechanism was used by the Ancient Greeks to map the movements of celestial bodies, specifically stars and planets, across the sky as a means of navigation.
However, after decoding the broken inscriptions on the device’s surface, scientists say it had an astrological purpose. In other words, it was used to study the movements and relative positions of celestial objects in order to divine information about human affairs and terrestrial events, i.e. to predict the future.
Scientists have written about their research in Almagest (citation below), the International Journal for the History of Scientific Ideas.
Maybe colours signified what was to come
Mike Edmunds, Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, a member of the team investigating the device, said in a conference in Athens:
“We are not quite sure how to interpret [the inscriptions], but they could hark back to suggestions that the colour of an eclipse was some sort of omen or signal.”
“Certain colours might be better for what’s coming than other colours. This is the first instance we have in the mechanism of any real mention of astrology rather than astronomy.”
An SVG version of the schematic for the Antikythera Mechanism. (Image: Wikipedia)
When it was discovered in 1901, the original mechanism was a single encrusted piece. It soon fractured into three major pieces. Other smaller fragments have broken off as the result of cleaning and handling, while several were discovered on the sea floor by the Cousteau expedition.
The Antikythera Mechanism is an amazingly complex clockwork mechanism consisting of more than thirty meshing bronze gears, which the researchers believe was designed and created by Greek scientists from 150 to 100 BC.
Researchers had thought the type of technology that was found in the device did not emerge until about 1,000 years ago, that is, until the Antikythera Mechanism was discovered.
All the device’s fragments found so far are kept for research in Athens at the National Archaeological Museum.
Citation: “The Inscriptions of the Antikythera Mechanism,” M. Allen, W. Ambrisco, M. Anastasiou, D. Bate, Y. Bitsakis, A. Crawley, M.G.Edmunds, D. Gelb, R. Hadland, P. Hockley, A. Jones , T. Malzbender, H. Mangou, X. Moussas, A. Ramsey , J.H. Seiradakis, J. M. Steele, A.Tselikas, M. Zafeiropoulou. Almagest, Vol. VII, Issue 1. May 2016.
Video – Antikythera Mechanism a Philosopher’s Guide to the Galaxy
Scientists this week said they believe that the Antikythera Mechanism – the world’s oldest analogue computer – was a philosopher’s guide to the galaxy – a device that could predict the future.