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World's Oldest Computer Antikythera Mechanism is More Ancient than Previously Thought

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The Antikythera Mechanism has been described as an analog computer in the ancient world, and now new research shows the device is even older than once believed.

The Antikythera was capable of calculating phases of the Moon, positions of planets, and eclipses. The technology, more than 2,000 years old, predates other inventions by more than 1,000 years. Astronomical predictions are carried out utilizing around 40 differential gears and cogs. The mechanism was found in a shipwreck by sponge divers in the year 1900.

Dating of the ancient device originally placed the creation of the mechanism to around B.C.E. 100. Researchers examined an eclipse calendar built into the system. They found one event on the calendar dated to May 12, 205 B.C.E.  The eclipse calendar displays dates of the events through the position of a dial on the back of the mechanism. Analysis carried out in 2008 showed the device was once stored within a wooden box, containing two doors. This casing contained instructions for operation of the mechanism. A large single dial on the front of the Antikythera mechanism displayed an Egyptian calendar, as well as the Greek zodiac.

Babylonian mathematics were used in the construction of the pioneering computing device. People of Babylon used a mathematical system based on the number 60, the same way the western world uses places of 10. Like our system, larger units were placed to the left.

Planetary positions of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, the only planets known to ancient people, could be calculated using the device.

The designers of the Antikythera remain a mystery. Inscriptions on the device suggest the mechanism may have been constructed in Syracuse, home to famed inventor and philosopher Archimedes. This has suggested to several researchers the famous scientist may have been behind the creation of the invention, far ahead of its time. The most challenging problem with this idea is that the legendary philosopher was killed in the year 212 B.C.E. The ship carrying the mechanism sunk sometime between the years B.C.E. 85 and B.C.E. 60, leading to a mystery.

"Evans and Carman arrived at the 205 B.C. date using a method of elimination that they devised. Beginning with the hundreds of ways that the Antikythera's eclipse patterns could fit Babylonian records (as reconstructed by John Steele, Brown University) the team used their system to eliminate dates successively, until they had a single possibility," the University of Puget Sound reported.

Babylonian astronomers knew of several patterns in astronomy that helped them to predict eclipses, including the Saros Cycle. Once every 18 years, the Sun, Earth, and the Moon line up in, roughly, the same position, producing regular eclipses.

In addition to charting the positions of astronomical bodies, the Antikythera mechanism was also capable of calculating dates of Olympic games, held in Greece.

Investigation of the Antikythera and dating of the device was detailed in the journal Archive for History of Exact Sciences

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