Scientists Claim Antikythera Mechanism is Actually Ancient Computer - - March 2007
More than a hundred years ago an extraordinary mechanism was found by sponge divers at the bottom of the sea near the island of Antikythera. It astonished the whole international community of experts on the ancient world.
Was it an astrolabe? Was in an orrery or an astronomical clock? Or something else? For decades, scientific investigation failed to yield much light and relied more on imagination than the facts.
However research over the last half century has begun to reveal its secrets. It dates from around the 1st to 5th century B.C. and is the most sophisticated mechanism known from the ancient world.
Nothing as complex is known for the next thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism is now understood to be dedicated to astronomical phenomena and operates as a complex mechanical "computer" which tracks the cycles of the Solar System. (This 2000 years before we even realized there was a solar system).
The device is remarkable for the level of miniaturization and complexity of its parts, which is comparable to that of 18th century clocks. It has over 30 gears, although some have suggested as many as 70 gears, with teeth formed through equilateral triangles.
When past or future dates were entered via a crank (now lost), the mechanism calculated the position of the Sun, Moon or other astronomical information such as the location of other planets. It is possible that the mechanism is based on heliocentric principles, rather than the then-dominant geocentric view espoused by Aristotle and others.
The heliocentric view proposed by Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC - c. 230 BC) did not receive widespread recognition, but provides for the possibility of the existence of such a system at this time.
The mechanism has 3 main dials, one on the front, and two on the back.
The front dial is marked with the divisions of the Egyptian calendar, or the Sothic year, based on the Sothic cycle. Inside this there is a second dial marked with the Greek signs of the Zodiac. This second dial can be moved to adjust, with respect to the Sothic dial, to compensate for leap years.
The front dial probably carried at least three hands, one showing the date, and two others showing the positions of the Sun and the Moon. The Moon indicator is ingeniously adjusted to show the first anomaly of the Moon's orbit. It is reasonable to suppose the Sun indicator had a similar adjustment, but any gearing for this mechanism (if it existed) has been lost. The front dial also includes a second mechanism with a spherical model of the Moon that displays the Lunar phase.
There is reference in the inscriptions for the planets Mars and Venus, and it would have certainly been within the capabilities of the maker of this mechanism to include gearing to show their positions. There is some speculation that the mechanism may have had indicators for the 5 planets known to the Greeks. None of the gearing, except for one unaccounted gear, for such planetary mechanisms survives.
Finally, the front dial includes a parapegma (a precursor to the modern day Almanac) used to mark the rising and setting of specific stars. Each star is thought to be identified by Greek characters which cross reference details inscribed on the mechanism.
The upper back dial, is in the form of a spiral, with 47 divisions per turn, displaying the 235 months of the 19 year Metonic cycle. This dial contains a smaller subsidiary dial which displays the 76 year Callippic cycle. (There are 4 Metonic cycles within 1 Callippic cycle.) Both of these cycles are important in fixing calendars.
The lower back dial is also in the form of a spiral, with 223 divisions showing the Saros cycle. It also has a smaller subsidiary dial which displays the 54 year Exeligmos cycle. (There are 3 Saros cycles within 1 Exeligmos cycle.)