UCL scientists uncover mysteries around 2,000-year-old computer, the first analogue computer in the world

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Updated: March 15, 2021 12:27 PM

The team has published a paper in Scientific Reports, detailing a new display of the ancient Greek cosmos within a “complex gearing system at the front of the mechanism”.

Exploded model of the Cosmos gearing of the Antikythera Mechanism. (Image: Tony Freeth)

World’s first analogue computer: Scientists might have uncovered the mysteries surrounding the first analogue computer in the world! Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient Greek astronomical calculator, and it is the most complex engineering piece to have survived since then. The device, which was in use 2,000 years ago, helped in predicting the positions of the planets, the Sun as well as the Moon, while also predicting when the solar and the lunar eclipses would occur. However, till now, scientists had not been able to accurately recreate what the device looked like. But, a team of scientists from the University College London (UCL) believe that they have figured it out.

The team has published a paper in Scientific Reports, detailing a new display of the ancient Greek cosmos within a “complex gearing system at the front of the mechanism”.

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In a statement, lead author of the paper Professor Tony Freeth said that their model was the first one yet theorised which conformed to all physical evidence while also matching the scientific descriptions inscribed on the mechanism itself.

The Antikythera mechanism has been a cause of fascination and controversy ever since it had been discovered in 1901 in a Roman-era shipwreck near Antikythera, a small Mediterranean island.

Antikythera mechanism is an astronomical calculator which is a complex combination of a 30 surviving gears, and while over the century, a huge progress had been made to understand how the mechanism worked, it was only in 2005 that 3D X-Rays and surface imaging allowed scientists to properly demonstrate how the Antikythera mechanism actually went about predicting the positions of the Sun, the Moon and the planets and predicted when the eclipses would occur.

Still, the researchers had not completely understood the gearing system present in the front of the device, despite numerous attempts and efforts. It was made more challenging by the fact that the remains of the device – a third of what it used to be – are fragmented into 82 pieces.

Among the remains was Fragment A, the biggest surviving piece, which displayed the features of pillars, bearings and a block, while Fragment D featured a plate, a 63-tooth gear as well as a disk. Earlier researchers had used the 2005 X-Ray data to find thousands of text characters inside the fragments, which had remained unread for about 2 millennia. On the back cover, the inscriptions also had a cosmos display description, showing planets moving on rings, indicated by marker beads. The team worked to reconstruct this display, the university said.

The team found two key figures of 462 years and 442 years on the X-Rays of the front cover, and these figures accurately represent Venus and Saturn’s cycles respectively. The variable cycles of the planets need to be observed over a long period of time to predict the positions of these planets, which is why the researchers were perplexed as to how the Greeks reached these two accurate numbers of years of the two planets’ cycles.

However, with the help of the Greek mathematical model that philosopher Parmenides had described, the UCL research team was able to explain how the Greeks had been able to derive the cycles of Venus and Saturn. Not only that, but they were also able to recover the cycles of all of the other planets, the evidence of which were missing.

The team matched the evidence in Fragments A and D to a Venus mechanism, exactly modeling the planet’s 462-year cycle relation, and in this, the 63-tooth gear played a key role, team member PhD candidate David Higgon said. Professor Freeth added that after this, his team created “innovative mechanisms” for all planets to calculate the advanced astronomical cycles, minimising the number of gears in the entire system to fit them into the tight available spaces.

With this discovery, the team is closer to completely understanding the capabilities of this mechanism.

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