The riddle wrapped in a puzzle as to how the world’s first analogue computer worked may have been unravelled by a University College of London (UCL) Research Team that includes to scholars of Greek descent.
The inter-disciplinary research team led by Dr Adam Wojcik, includes Archaeometallurgist Myrto Geogakopoulou and physicist Aris Dacanalis. The team’s work is funded by AG Leventis Foundation, Charles Frodsham & Co and the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers.
The team was able to piece together how what is thought to be the world’s first analogue computer accurately predicted the positions of the Sun, Moon and five of the the then-known planets of our solar system (Mercury, Venus,. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).
Remnants of the complex 2,000-year-old device were found near underwater Roman-era shipwreck were first discovered by sponge divers off the waters of Antikythera island in the Aegean in 1901.
Scholars had long argued about the uses of the device. Just a third of the original device survived at the bottom of the sea and it was split into 82 fragments fused by centuries under the sea.
The lead writer of the paper describing the UCL team’s work in “Scientific Reports”, Professor Tony Freeth (UCL Mechanical Engineering) said on the university’s website that: ” Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.
“The Sun, Moon and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance,” said Prof Freeth.
The ancient computer was made in bronze consisting of a complex combination of 30 bronze gears that allowed the user to calculate, eclipses, phases of the moon, positions of the planets and the dates of the Olympic games.
Over the last century, great strides were made to understand how the device may have worked. In 2005, the use of 3D X-rays and surface imaging helped researchers to understand how the device was used to predict eclipses and calculate the variable motion of the Moon.
The UCL team has been able to work out how the complex gearing system at the front of the device worked.
The 3D X-ray images revealed thousands of text characters hidden within the recovered fragments that provided pointers, as did inscriptions on the back cover.
The UCL statement said that the back cover of the device “included a description of the cosmos display, with the planets moving on rings indicated by marker beads. It was this display that the team worked to reconstruct.”
The largest, Fragment A, included bearings, pillars and a block. Fragment D featured a disk and a 63-tooth gear and plate.
“The classic astronomy of the first millennium BC originated in Babylon, but nothing in this astronomy suggested how the ancient Greeks found the highly accurate 462-year cycle for Venus and 442-year cycle for Saturn,” said PhD candidate and UCL Antikythera Research Team member Aris Dacanalis.
The team were able to explain how the cycles of Venus and Saturn were derived, as well as the cycles of the other planets using an ancient Greek mathematical method described by the philosopher Parmenides.
“The team then created innovative mechanisms for all of the planets that would calculate the new advanced astronomical cycles and minimize the number of gears in the whole system, so that they would fit into the tight spaces available,” said Prof Freeth.
Dr Wojcik said that what remained was to prove the device’s feasibility by making a working model using ancient techniques.