Little Bits of History

Computational Device

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 17, 2011

Antikythera mechanism

May 17, 1902: Valerios Stais discovers the Antikythera mechanism. Stais was a Greek archaeologist. He studied medicine but switched to archaeology and became the director of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. He led excavations in several areas including the Greek island of Antikythera where this mechanism was found. The mechanism was found and recovered from the Antikythera wreck which itself was discovered by sponge divers. The ship was holding several statues as well as this early analog computer.

At the time of the discovery, it was simply an unknown device. However, it contained many gears and was of a sophistication on par with a 19th century Swiss clock. It was flawlessly made leading some to speculate that it was not the first of its kind. There may be others of the Hellenistic Period waiting to be discovered. It is estimated it was constructed around 150-100 BC. All instructions are written in Koine Greek and may have been built in Rhodes by Posidonius. Others believe it may have originated in Corinth and might be connected with Archimedes.

The complex mechanism contains more than 30 gears. There is speculation it may have contained up to 72 gears. A date would have been selected using a crank which has been lost to us. The mechanism would then calculate the position of the Sun, Moon, or other astronomical information [including the position of the known planets or wandering stars]. It was built to position astronomical bodies in the celestial sphere and was based on a geocentric or Earth centered universe.

Such devices are referenced in ancient literature. Cicero mentioned two machines that could predict the movement of the Sun, Moon, and five planets that were known at the time. Both of these had been built by Archimedes. Because of the great respect given to Archimedes, when Syracuse was under siege, the machine built there by the great man was spared from destruction. It is unsure whether the found device was based on an earlier model and improved – or possibly a new device all together. Attempts have been made to rebuild the entire mechanism in the last half of the 20th century.

“He only employs his passion who can make no use of his reason.” – Cicero

“Men decide far more problems by hate, love, lust, rage, sorrow, joy, hope, fear, illusion, or some other inward emotion, than by reality, authority, any legal standard, judicial precedent, or statute.” – Cicero

“Eureka! – I have found it!” – Archimedes

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” – Archimedes

Also on this day:
And They’re Off”
 – In 1875 the first Kentucky Derby is run.
That was Quick – In 1963, a fight ended after 48 seconds.