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Was Antikythera Mechanism A 2,100-Year-Old Computer?

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The Antikythera mechanism was discovered by sponge divers in the waters off the coast of Greece in the year 1900. The device, manufactured by ancient Greeks, is composed of interlocking gears and dials. For years, scientists believed the mechanism was used to calculate the positions of planets, eclipses and other astronomical phenomena. New research suggests, however, the device may have been used as a primitive computer.

Advanced imaging techniques were utilized to decipher thousands of characters printed on the mechanism that have remained a mystery until now. After 10 years of investigation, researchers believe the mechanism was a primitive computer designed to predict the future. Investigators are comparing the ability to read these characters to obtaining the operating instructions for a mechanical device.

Roughly 14,000 characters are engraved on the device, of which approximately 3,500 are now deciphered.

"Now we have texts that you can actually read as ancient Greek, what we had before was like something on the radio with a lot of static. It's a lot of detail for us because it comes from a period from which we know very little about Greek astronomy and essentially nothing about the technology, except what we gather from here. So these very small texts are a very big thing for us," said Alexander Jones of New York University.

Some of the newly-deciphered texts, printed on the front and back of the devices, along with the inside of the covers, are just 1/20 inch in height.

Over the last century, investigators theorized that the Antikythera mechanism was a form of astronomical tool. Setting a date and a time with a hand-driven crank, it is possible to read the positions of several objects in the night sky. However, new analysis reveals this was less an astronomical tool than a device meant to predict future events of the land and people of Greece. In some ways, the mechanism may have also been used as a teaching device, acting as a demonstration of the timing of celestial bodies.

The Antikythera was likely fashioned sometime between the years 200 and 70 B.C. When divers came across the device, it was broken into two pieces, and it is possible that other fragments of the mechanism are still hidden on the floor of the Aegean Sea. Along with the mechanism, divers found several small statues, ceramics and glassware. The ancient computer was named after the island nearest the location where it was found, more than 100 years ago.

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