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Ancient Astronomical Computer Decoded 233

Posted by samzenpus
from the consult-the-wheel dept.
slimjim8094 writes "A mechanical device from 150BC was found in a shipwreck. Upon examination with X-Rays, the device appeared to be a revolutionary computer used to calculate lunar cycles. This device "is technically more complex than any known for at least a millennium afterward." From the article "The hand-operated mechanism, presumably used in preparing calendars for planting and harvesting and fixing religious festivals, had at least 30, possibly 37, hand-cut bronze gear-wheels, the researchers said. A pin-and-slot device connecting two gear-wheels induced variations in the representation of lunar motions according to the Hipparchos model of the Moon's elliptical orbit around Earth."
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Ancient Astronomical Computer Decoded

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  • by conner_bw (120497) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:05AM (#17045640) Homepage Journal
    This new evidence clearly proves that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens with psychic powers able to time travel using Soviet technology acquired by opening a portal into Nostradamus' talking colostomy bag from the future!

    Watch out Wikipedia, here come my edits!!!

    • Yeh, this astrolube, ummm, labe, was probably one that got torpedoed in WW 2.5x10^-15 by the Proto-Soviets, who somehow bombed themselves into the future, but went broke and couldn't go back in time, so maybe this was another "Enigma" machine. Now, wouldn't THAT be, umm, enigmatic?

      Wikipedia.... look out Shakra and the Sleetaks might be coming back...
    • Re:I knew it! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Morphine007 (207082) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @06:41AM (#17047132)

      I know you're joking, but given the fact that we're finding old stuff based on some pretty intense knowledge, I'm starting to think that Graham Hancock might be right about us being older, as a race, than we think we are. [grahamhancock.com] He attracts a lot of criticisms, but mostly from egyptologists because his interpretations of artifacts found contradict theirs. The book is an excellent read though.

      Though aliens would be fun too, I suppose...

      • by sadler121 (735320)
        We already knew that there was an ancient [wikipedia.org], much more advanced civilization that lived on Earth.
      • Re:I knew it! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 30, 2006 @10:00AM (#17049092)
        Graham Hancock might be right about us being older, as a race, than we think we are.

        No, it just shows how much damage to civilisation the Romans actualy did. This is an important point in the days of Pax Americana.

        • I remember him stressing that in his book as well. Though I think he also took a poke at the spanish for burning down the oldest library in the world... in any event, the wikipedia entry [wikipedia.org] has a fairly nice summary of the ideas presented in the book. I'm not really a big fan of the Earth Crustal Displacement theory [wikipedia.org]... Einstein was, if that helps lend it some credibility.... in any event, there is evidence that a pole shift has taken place before, so it's not clear how many times it may have happened, and how
        • Re:I knew it! (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Scott7477 (785439) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:34PM (#17052626) Homepage Journal
          "How much damage to civilization the Romans actualy did." I am rather perplexed by this statement. A list of contributions to civilization made by Rome could include:
          -world class civil engineering: there are many structures built by Roman engineers still standing and a number are still in use
          -the concept of republican government (and I mean in the sense of a body of legislators elected by citizens empowered to conduct community business; not the US political party)
          -extensive body of literature and philosophy which forms much of the foundation of Western civilization today and is still relevant
          -preserved Greek literature, structures, and philosophy and incorporated same into Roman culture
          -demonstrated that a large political body composed of many regions incorporating a variety of cultures and races could be established and be stable and peaceful
          I am not saying that Rome was perfect and obviously its society eventually became corrupt and thus vulnerable to destruction, but it is absurd to talk about Roman damage to civilization.
          • by thelenm (213782) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {nelehtm}> on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:41PM (#17052762) Homepage Journal
            All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
          • by bentcd (690786)
            Considering the size, power, and long life of the Roman Republic + Empire, the most astonishing thing about them is how _little_ they were able to do with it all. They did provide us with some remarkable advances within law and rhetoric, as well as a civil administration system out of which Europe could develop the middle ages. Its engineering may have been astonishing but since those skills failed to survive the fall of the western Empire, I don't see that this was any particular benefit to us. What they f
    • by smitty_one_each (243267) * on Thursday November 30, 2006 @07:35AM (#17047364) Homepage Journal
      According to Steven Wright, he was paid gobs of money by the US government for years to research who financed the pyramids.
      After a couple of decades, he told them "It was this guy named Eddie."
      Now, I ask you: is Wright an Iron Maiden fan, where Eddie would tie into the whole Egypt/mummy thing, or a Van Halen fan?
    • This new evidence clearly proves that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens with psychic powers able to time travel using Soviet technology acquired by opening a portal into Nostradamus' talking colostomy bag from the future!
      You think you're funny? You're not. You're just correct.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:07AM (#17045662)
    So it looks like an astrolabe, works like an astrolabe, but it's not, it's a computer?

    I'm only in history 101, and I knew what it was from /. summary.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrolabe [wikipedia.org]
    • by jpardey (569633) <j_pardey.hotmail@com> on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:33AM (#17045814)
      Perhaps you should take some set theory. Astrolabes are subsets of computers, I would think. Perhaps the article is stretching the significance, but it is a device to perform calculations, like gun targeting computers, and Babbage's computational engines.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analog_Computer [wikipedia.org]
      • by msobkow (48369) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @08:25AM (#17047772) Homepage Journal

        When you look at devices like this, the precision construction of the pyramids, the alignment of Stonehenge, and some of the Aztec and Mayan engineering in North America, it's pretty clear that the "primitive" people weren't as primitive as we might think.

        Even without hard mathematics, a great deal of engineering can be done with simple tools:

        • Circles are obvious -- a center pin, a string or rod, and the marker.
        • Two center pins and a loop of string to make that ellipses.
        • Estimation of position via chords
        • Basic linear geometry via subdivision of angles -- taught to every high school student for years.

        The interesting thing to me is that despite the varied religious and social backgrounds of the regions, every single case seemed to reserve that knowledge of basic engineering for some form of priesthood. Some say that this indicates there was a global or root religion, whether some form of Freemasonry, Kabal, Egyptian, or older religion.

        Personally I think it's the obvious outgrowth of all those people living in a world that conforms to the same physical laws, properties, and geometry. No matter what language was used to describe the technique for inscribing a circle, the actual work done would have been the same.

        I've even heard some people postulate that such primitive peoples "worshipped math and geometry". I suppose that's so in the largest scope, but I think it was a worship of knowledge and learning, not of mathematics per se.

        It's also interesting how certain proportions and combinations of those basic shapes repeat across history and cultures. It's like we're hardwired to find those combinations comforting and familiar, no matter how they've been used.

        Sinuous shapes are much less common. Only a few societies seem to have made regular use of constructs like "French curves" on a large scale, and only in more recent times. Combined with mythos of evil or powerful serpents and dragons, perhaps those symbols actually indicated rare individuals who could work with and visualize those formulas. After all, there is no denying that people working with advanced mathematics seem to intuit solutions, then prove the answer correct, or work through the details of the calculation.

        Perhaps the "wizards" of old were those rare individuals, and the dragons they helped slay were actually charts and graphs predicting eclipses and such, misunderstood by peasants who saw scribblings on parchment or castle walls that they could only interpret as being pictures of some fantastical beast. :)

        • by msobkow (48369)

          Don't ignore the moral implication:

          How dare the slave master complain how the slave is treated!

        • by Anonym1ty (534715)

          Some say that this indicates there was a global or root religion

          I've seen this mentioned before. For instance in a god's name.

          Believed to come from Deus Pater (dewouspather)in Proto Indo-European (PIE) culture, "Sky Father" comes both Jupiter (Latin), Zeus (Greek), Dispater (Gaulish), Dyaus Pita (Sanskrit), Dievas (Baltic).

          Dhghom Mater (Earth Mother) is Demeter (Greek), Mati Zemlja (Slavic), etc.

          I'm sure even to this day Mother Earth is still a concept you are familiar with... and possibly father sky. Interestingly enough the Egyptians may have had a Mother Sky

          • by msobkow (48369)

            As far as I recall, the Egyptians considered their pharoahs to be representatives of their sun god, Ra.

            Probably one of the first things the most primitive of peoples might have thought about is the sky and the earth. They couldn't escape the earth; they couldn't touch the sky.

            Thus the "heavens" became the unreachable comfort/good, while the concept of a hell below ground developed from inescapable daily misery and suffering.

            Is it really surprising that so many cultures have names for those two conce

    • That's like calling a personal computer the same as a 4 function calculator. While technically correct, it completely misses the point.
  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:09AM (#17045668)
    Overly complex and tediously designed. It sounds like a prototype.

    The production version probably had a sleek plastic case and LED display, but probably only supported lunar cycle calculation and none of the other farming predictors or epicycle calculators.

    It was the Greek Apple, so to speak. The Grappa.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Tablizer (95088)
      Overly complex and tediously designed. It sounds like a prototype. The production version probably had a sleek plastic...

      i-Strolabe
           
    • by gbobeck (926553)
      It was the Greek Apple, so to speak. The Grappa.


      At least it wasn't the Grapple [grapplefruits.com].
  • The Antikythera (Score:5, Informative)

    by G3ckoG33k (647276) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:14AM (#17045700)
    This device is fairly well known by now. Google generates 455.000 hits on the Antikythera and has more than 800 images, including a 2005 X-ray image at Wikipedia.
    • by dasunt (249686)
      This device is fairly well known by now. Google generates 455.000 hits on the Antikythera and has more than 800 images, including a 2005 X-ray image at Wikipedia

      I find this google news link [slashdot.org] rather informative myself. ;)

    • by rxmd (205533) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @03:59AM (#17046466) Homepage
      This device is fairly well known by now. Google generates 455.000 hits on the Antikythera and has more than 800 images, including a 2005 X-ray image at Wikipedia.

      More so, Google generates more than 110 hits on the Antikythera on slashdot.org [google.com] (I hope the link is functioning this time)
      • by abradsn (542213)
        Then it must be common place... Try a search for your name in google. I get like 1000 hits on Google for mine. It must mean that there are a 1000 of me out there, and everyone knows me. Then again, probably not.

        I'm just saying that the statistic you posted is not very relevant for your argument.

        The first 10 or 20 results in google might be relevant to a search, but they pretty much go to hell after that. This is usually enough to find whatever you were looking for, or to know that you should try anothe
  • by JavaManJim (946878) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:16AM (#17045718)
    NPR radio said that it appeared in Greek literature that other complex devices were used by the wealthy to amuse guests.

    Currently I have a Nixie clock for the same 'guest amusement' function. In several millennium when this creation is rediscovered it will seem oddly complex and mysterious. Bill Gates and Scott McNealy, what mysterious technical devices are in your living room?

    So whats a Nixie? Forgot already have we? Jeff Thomas and Laurence Wilkins build good Nixie clocks.
    http://www.amug.org/~jthomas/clockpage.html [amug.org]

    Cheers,
    Jim Burke

    • by hey! (33014)
      I remember the old Wang "desk calculator". It was a box about 1' x 1' x 5', into which several keyboard/display units were plugged. The displays were nixie tubes. Their floating point precision was very limited -- they were prone to answers like "4.998143" intead of "5.0", which in an era of slide rules was no big deal.

      This was in a museum in the late 60s when they were they height of technology; they were indeed amazing pieces of miniaturization. I didn't know it at the time, but my future father in
  • by creimer (824291) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:24AM (#17045770) Homepage
    "My gears outnumbers your gears, loser!" from the ancient scroll recently found called "Gears of War".
    • An ancient L33t-V1k1ng from the same time period responded "All your GEARS are belong to us!" and proceeded to loot and pillage said Greek geeks homestead...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Microsoft Corp has filed a lawsuit against the Ancient Greeks, asserting IP violations stretching as far back as 2100 years ago.

    Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer was quote as saying 'Microsoft reserves the right to protect its intellectual property for the benefit of innovation. Essentially, if you as a company CEO were to ask me if you had a balance-sheet liability for using the Antikythera Mechanism, my answer would have to be yes'.

    Hipparchos, the alleged creator of the Antikythera Mechanism, could not be reache
  • by Travoltus (110240) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:39AM (#17045838) Journal
    We might be 100-1000 years ahead of ourselves technologically by now...

    *looks outside* Darn, still no flying cars!
    • by replicant108 (690832) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @05:08AM (#17046762) Journal
      We might be 100-1000 years ahead of ourselves technologically by now...

      Why would you assume that this was device was unique?

      It seems much more likely that this kind of object was rare (ie, difficult and expensive to build) rather than unique.

      It is important to remember that the ancients were just as intelligent as we are. In many cases they were also civilised and well-educated.
      • I don't see any real reason to assume it was rare.

        Technology this sophisticated (both in terms of mechanical design/theory and fabrication) doesn't just spring up out of the blue - this represents highly evolved technology. There must have been a whole series of simpler geared devices that lead up to this one, and likely more sophisticated ones that came after that unless there was some catastrophic disruption to the civilization that produced it right at that time.

        There's certainly been regressions in huma
      • Why would you assume that this was device was unique?
        No kidding. I can picture the conversation now:

        "Hey guys, lets take this brand new device which is technological leap years ahead of our current technology and would certainly sell for a lot if more were produced, and lets stick the only one we got on this here ship and send it off to god knows what fate on the sea."

  • by Tablizer (95088) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:47AM (#17045876) Journal
    It is not clear to me if the sophistication label given to it is due to the mechanics or the math. It appears to be in the math rather than so much the mechanics. But that is not surprising since the ancient greeks put more stock in math than mechanics. They didn't need mechanical devices because they had slaves.
         
    • "But that is not surprising since the ancient greeks put more stock in math than mechanics."

      The term "Archimedes screw" has nothing to do with Greek orgies.

      "They didn't need mechanical devices because they had slaves."

      I suppose next you will tell us that no slave was ever given a plough to work the fields. Slaves must be caught, bought, domesticated, fed, watered, clothed, housed, ect, they are not without cost, they are mearly the cheapest form of labour. Today's slaves are called "factory workers
  • Moo (Score:3, Funny)

    by Chacham (981) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:48AM (#17045880) Homepage Journal
    Post: A mechanical device from 150BC was found in a shipwreck. Upon examination with X-Rays, the device appeared to be a revolutionary computer used to calculate lunar cycles. This device "is technically more complex than any known for at least a millennium afterward."

    Translation: Some crank ex-programmer was gearing up for a raise with the loony idea of cyclic checks, and was ready to ship the classy object in C when it began to wreack havoc and the whole thing sunk. A new developer tried to insert a byte to handle the Y1K bug.

    • well, didn't you know that due to the lack of zero, the Roman empire collapsed because there was no way to indicate correct termination of C programs ?
  • by jtorkbob (885054) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @01:59AM (#17045942) Homepage
    archaeologists also discovered: hyroglyphs depicting a story called 'The Antikythera Mechanism is for Porn'.
  • It was made of petrified GRITS!
  • Obligatory (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Yeah...but does it run Linux?
  • Just think...maybe if they add 5 or 10 more gears to the device, it will then also be able to predict dupes on Slashdot...
  • The goods (Score:3, Informative)

    by abshnasko (981657) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @03:02AM (#17046242)
    • More goods (Score:2, Informative)

      by Angstroman (747480)
      A longer summary article of the recent paper whose abstract [nature.com] is referenced above is here. [nature.com] Note that this is a recent article. The Antikythera Mechanism has been discussed before on /., but this paper is recent.
  • See it move (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 30, 2006 @04:40AM (#17046640)
    There's video of the recreation and 3d animation of the original here:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/ne ws/2006/11/29/ugreek129.xml [telegraph.co.uk]
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 30, 2006 @05:50AM (#17046956)
    Just make a search on De Solla Prices diagram of the antikytheras.

    Simple math that we all can understand.

    The sun gear has 64 teeth.
    It meshes with the smaller of a 38,48 gear pair.
    The 48 meshes with the smaller of a 24,127 gear pair.
    The 127 meshes with the 32 teeth of the moon gear.
    The ratio of angular speeds can then be calculated as (64/38) x (48/24) x (127/32)=(254/19) = 13.36842..

    which is an excellent approximation of the astronomical ratio 13.368267..

    This corresponds with the Metonic cycle, in which 19 solar years correspond exactly with 235 lunations,and therefore with 254 sidereal revolutions of the Moon.

    Thus. for every 19 (direct) turns of the main drive wheel; this produces 2,356/2 revolutions of the whole differential turntable, and all the gears mounted upon it.

    This is just awsome. You can pin point where the moon will be located, just by turning one wheel a certain number of time, according to what year is it. Thus, you can tell what the tide will look like days, weeks, months ahead of your trip at sea.

    How come this device died and disapeared for centuries? Given the Egyptians knowledge of the earths equinox, this was the key to discover America way before Colombus did.

    • by Himring (646324) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @07:28AM (#17047334) Homepage Journal
      How come this device died and disapeared for centuries? Given the Egyptians knowledge of the earths equinox, this was the key to discover America way before Colombus did.

      Someone found it could also play music, and they lost all interest in finding america....

    • The decline of Greek culture started with the Roman conquest of the Greek empire. (Some would argue that it started with the emergence of a Greek empire itself.) Items like the Antikythera mechanism that took a highly skilled, well educated artisan with access to exceptionally good tools and high quality raw materials quite some time to make became more and more rare. Add this to the fact that such accuracy isn't really needed and a sufficiently well educated person could do the calculations for twenty year
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by radtea (464814)
        The decline of Greek culture started with the Roman conquest of the Greek empire. (Some would argue that it started with the emergence of a Greek empire itself.)

        Technology is culture. Every viable technology requires a group of practioners large enough to transmit it across generations. That means they must have the resources to train apprentices and sufficient prospect of future revenues from their work to attract capable people.

        The Athenian Greek leisure class (free adult male citizens) were interested
        • You lost me there. Greece, under the aegis of the Byzantines, didn't see ``the dark ages'' in the same way that the Roman Empire in western Europe did. You have to go back to well before the invention of the Antikythera mechanism to find Greece's dark ages. So attributing the loss of the technology of late antiquity in Greece to the general decline of the Dark Ages is misguided at best.

          In the early middle ages, you had the reign of Justinian and continual development up through what is considered the ``go

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by radtea (464814)

            But for some centuries Roman intellectual and technological power was centered in the West, and it is likely that the techological community that created this device would have migrated west as Roman power grew in the 1st century. So when the Western Empire fell, there is a good chance that the community was no longer able to sustain itself, if it had not already failed due to the vast increases in economic hardship during that last century before the final division of the Empire and the collapse of the We
            • Likely that the intelligentsia migrated west? I dunno. Such would be well outside the norm. Maybe some of the practictioners migrated west, but a whole school? Very unlikely.

              For most of the Byzantine era, Byzantium was a superpower. Outside of brief but notable incursions by the Muslims (who by that time were rather heavily Hellenized) and the Bulgarians, most of Greece was under Greek control from the beginning of the Byzantine era (whether you measure the beginning from the third or from the fifth centu

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by kbahey (102895)
      Excellent analysis, thank you.

      Except for one part: the Mediterranean has barely any tide.

      So, they would use it for other things, but not that.
      • By the first century BC (to which this mechanism most probably dates) the Romans had conquered the Greeks and Greek culture overtook a good deal of the Roman Empire. The Romans, with provinces along the Atlantic coast of Europe, would have certainly been interested in tides. In fact, the vessel that was carrying the Antikythera mechanism was Roman.
        • by kbahey (102895)
          You may be right, since the device is dated 150-100 BC, and Hispania was captured by the Roman Republic from the Carthaginians after the Second Punic War (201BC).
  • pwned (Score:3, Funny)

    by gerrysteele (927030) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @07:48AM (#17047470)
    Charles Babbage just got pwned
  • B E S U R E T O D R I N K Y O U R O V A L T I N E ????

    A crummy commercial?!? Sheesh! Why did we even bother decoding that?

  • The patent finally ran out on it last week! Unfortunately, there's still a copyright on the software (the guy turning the crank).
  • by peter303 (12292) on Thursday November 30, 2006 @12:26PM (#17051380)
    There a number of examples in history where a single genius invents a lot of amazing stuff in a short period of time. New discovered universal gravition, calculas, and optics. Galileo discovered lows of motion and telescope. Imhotep pretty invented the pyramids. You can see his intermediate projects from mastaba to step pyramids to true stone ones. Archimedes and so on ...
    There are probably many such geniuses unrecorded in history. Writing systems appear fair ly suddenly in dyanastic Egpyt and the alphabet in Urgait. Other historians suggest long transitional phases, with some evidence. But I can equally envison some light-bulb guy doing this in a single career.
    Perhaps the clock machinist was one of these geniuses.
  • RTFA
    It says clearly that the antikyhera can NOT be called a computer but a calculator.

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