Decoding an ancient computer
- On 12/03/2010
- In Museum News
By M Dee Dubroff - Amog
The mysterious mechanism was discovered in 1900 in the wreck of a Roman vessel off the Greek island of Antikythera.
The ship held other treasures that were taken over by the Greek government, but one of the items retrieved by the divers was an odd-looking corroded lump of some kind.
When the lump fell apart some time later, a damaged machine of unknown purpose was revealed. It bore large gears, small cogs and a few words engraved in Greek.
At first it was believed to be some kind of astronomical time-keeping device. One researcher in particular, Derek J. de Solla Price, established initial tooth counts and believed that the device followed what is known as the Metonic cycle, which in the ancient world was used to predict eclipses.
The full function of this odd device remained a mystery until recently. Advances in photography and x-rays have revealed the true complexity of this astonishing creation that, anachronistically speaking, is akin to finding the remnants of a supersonic jet plane in the ruins of ancient Egypt.
Photography unlocked many of the mysteries of this device by exposing its surfaces to varying lighting patterns, which in turn created different levels of contrast. Researchers were then able to read more of the inscribed text than was previously possible.
Details of the interactions of the gears were quite complex and clearly revealed through the marvels of x-ray imaging and the creation of 3-D computer models of the mechanism.
The Greek National Archaeological Museum also found some boxes filled with 82 mechanism fragments.