October 20, 2005

An Ancient Greek What?!

The Economist is reporting on a new reconstruction by Michael Wright, a British museum curator, of the so-called Antikythera Mechanism. The Slashdot headline reads, "Ancient Greek Computer Reconstructed." In case you were wondering what on earth the Antikythera Mechanism is or was, Slashdot seems to think it's a computer. From ancient Greece. How ancient, you ask? Well it was discovered 100 years ago in a shipwreck off an island near Crete. The shipwreck has been dated to 87 BC. Which brings us to the title of this post: an ancient Greek what?!

Now, slashdot has a tendency to sensationalize, and this is no exception, but this is truly remarkable. I can't believe I haven't heard of it before. The actual find is just a rusted pile of metal, with something that looks like a gear sticking out of it. We're not completely sure what it does, but after bombarding it with various types of radiation to figure that out it seems that it has a differential gear in it. That's the thing in your car that allows equal torque to be applied to each wheel even if they move at different speeds (see wikipedia). It was (re)invented in the 16th century. Our best guess as to what the thing does is that you turn the dials on it to select a date and the device displays the position of the earth, the sun, and the known planets at that date on its face. That's what the reconstruction does, anyway, and since it is very similar in function to the analog computers developed by Pascal, Leibniz, and others, Slashdot has decided that it's a computer. Astounding.

See also: the ancient Greek steam engine and other notable 1st century inventions of Hero of Alexandria. Yes, it seems that he did build a coin operated vending machine. Nothing is new under the sun. Wow.

Posted by Kenny at October 20, 2005 11:20 PM
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