Saturday, 2 June 2007

Ancient Greek Computing

One of the most-read articles in the May 14 edition of The New Yorker is a feature by John Seabrook about the The Antikythera Mechanism. The 2000-year old Greek instrument, fragments of which were hauled up from a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea where they were discovered in 1901, has been an object of fascination and puzzlement for generations of scientists who have tried to determine the instrument’s function.

But recently, the custom development of a 3D X-ray machine has provided computer tomography images that have enabled scientists to decipher a written user’s manual beneath the corroded surface of the fragments. Those findings were published in a letter in the November 30, 2006, edition of Nature.

Referred to by some as the world’s first computer, the geared box, now believed to have been used for predicting eclipses and other cosmic events, is held up as a rare piece of evidence of Greek superiority in technological development. Seabrook describes the first X-ray images of the mechanism’s innards as “a geared embryo—the incipient bud of an industrial age that remained unborn for a millennium.”

A slideshow of the images can be found at The New Yorker, and a replica of the instrument goes on display at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan later this month as part of its new exhibit, Gods, Myths, and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece.

You can also hear Greek physicists, Xenophon Moussas and John Seiradakis, members of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, describe the amazing object in a Science & the City podcast.

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