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Were Greeks 1,400 years ahead of their time?

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  • Were Greeks 1,400 years ahead of their time?

    FOR decades, researchers have been baffled by the intricate bronze mechanism of wheels and dials created 80 years before the birth of Christ.

    The "Antikythera Mechanism" was discovered damaged and fragmented on the wreck of a cargo ship off the tiny Greek island of Antikythera in 1900.

    Now, a joint British-Greek research team has found a hidden ancient Greek inscription on the device, which it thinks could unlock the mystery.

    The team believes the Antikythera Mechanism may be the world's oldest computer, used by the Greeks to predict the motion of the planets.

    The researchers say the device indicates a technical sophistication that would not be replicated for millennia and may also be based on principles of a heliocentric, or sun-centred, universe - a view of the cosmos that was not accepted by astronomers until the Renaissance.

    The Greek and British scientists used three-dimensional X-ray technology to make visible inscriptions that have gone unseen for 2,000 years.

    Mike Edmunds, an astrophysicist at Cardiff University, who is heading the British team, said: "The real question is, 'What was the device actually for?' Was it a used to predict calendars? Was it simply a teaching tool? The new text we have discovered should help answer these questions".

    The mechanism contains over 30 bronze wheels and dials and was probably operated by hand, Mr Edmunds said. The most prominent appraisal of the mechanism's purpose was put forward in 2002 by Michael Wright, the curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum in London, who said it was used to track the movements of all the celestial bodies known to the Greeks: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

    Mr Wright's theory is that the device was created in an academy founded by the Stoic philosopher Poseidonios on the Greek island of Rhodes. The writings of the 1st-century BC orator and philosopher Cicero - himself a former student of Poseidonios - cite a device with similarities to the mechanism.

    Xenophon Moussas, a researcher at Athens University, said the newly discovered text seems to confirm that the mechanism was used to track planetary bodies. The researchers are looking at whether the device placed the sun, not the earth, at the centre of the solar system.

    He said: "It is a puzzle concerning astronomical and mathematical knowledge in antiquity. The mechanism could rewrite certain chapters in this area."

    Yanis Bitsakis, also of Athens University, added: "The challenge is to place this device into a scientific context, as it comes almost out of nowhere ... and flies in the face of established theory that considers the ancient Greeks were lacking in applied technical knowledge."

    Mr Edmunds said the researchers were prepared for an onslaught of conspiracy theories. "There's no indication that the device is anything we wouldn't expect of the Greeks or something that would require an extra-terrestrial explanation.

    "I think it is a great testament to the sophistication of the Greeks and how far they advanced before the jackboot of the Romans came through."

    IF THE Antikythera Mechanism turns out to have been a machine for showing the movements of the planets around the sun, it would greatly alter our understanding of the history of astronomy.

    Although at least one Greek thinker posited a heliocentric view of the solar system, the dominant view at the time was Aristotle's - that the Earth was the centre of the universe and that everything rotated around it in perfect, circular orbits.

    It was not until 1,400 years later that Copernicus and Galileo conclusively proved the heliocentric view, which greatly altered man's understanding of his importance and position in the universe.

    Their work was met with stern resistance, as the Church believed the Aristotlean view - which put humanity at the centre of the cosmos - was integral to man's direct relation to God.

    Researchers are now searching for clues that the Antikythera Mechanism might have been governed by heliocentric principles. If they are successful, it would suggest the heliocentric world-view was more accepted by the Greeks than thought.


    Links to further reading about the Antikythera Mechanism

  • #2
    It looks like a heap of rubbish, feels like flaky pastry and has been linked to aliens. For decades, scientists have puzzled over the complex collection of cogs, wheels and dials seen as the most sophisticated object from antiquity, writes Helena Smith. But 102 years after the discovery of the calcium-encrusted bronze mechanism on the ocean floor, hidden inscriptions show that it is the world's oldest computer, used to map the motions of the sun, moon and planets.

    'We're very close to unlocking the secrets,' says Xenophon Moussas,an astrophysicist with a Anglo-Greek team researching the device. 'It's like a puzzle concerning astronomical and mathematical knowledge.'

    Known as the Antikythera mechanism and made before the birth of Christ, the instrument was found by sponge divers amid the wreckage of a cargo ship that sunk off the tiny island of Antikythera in 80BC. To date, no other appears to have survived.

    'Bronze objects like these would have been recycled, but being in deep water it was out of reach of the scrap-man and we had the luck to discover it,' said Michael Wright, a former curator at London's Science Museum. He said the apparatus was the best proof yet of how technologically advanced the ancients were. 'The skill with which it was made shows a level of instrument-making not surpassed until the Renaissance. It really is the first hard evidence of their interest in mechanical gadgets, ability to make them and the preparedness of somebody to pay for them.'

    For years scholars had surmised that the object was an astronomical showpiece, navigational instrument or rich man's toy. The Roman Cicero described the device as being for 'after-dinner entertainment'.

    But many experts say it could change how the history of science is written. 'In many ways, it was the first analogue computer,' said Professor Theodosios Tassios of the National Technical University of Athens. 'It will change the way we look at the ancients' technological achievements.'

    Revealed: world's oldest computer


    • #3
      This looks interesting to me many ancient cultures we ahead of their time, but a lot of their information got lost.


      • #4


        • #5
          COOL! i never saw this thread... amazing


          • #6

            July 29, 2009 -- I thought my capacity for sheer jaw-dropping amazement at the Antikythera mechanism had been well and truly exhausted – until last night. The puzzling instrument is a clockwork computer from ancient Greece that used a fiendishly complex assembly of meshed cogs to simulate the movement of the planets, predict lunar eclipses and indicate the dates of major sporting events.

            The clockwork technology in the device was already known to be centuries ahead of its time, but new evidence suggests that the enigmatic machine is even older than scientists had realised. "It is the most important scientific artefact known from the ancient world," said Jo Marchant, who has written a compelling book on the find called Decoding the Heavens. "There's nothing else like it for a thousand years afterwards."

            First, a quick recap. The Antikythera mechanism was discovered by sponge divers in 1901 who chanced upon the wreck of a Roman vessel off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. The ship was filled with bronze statues, pottery and glassware – booty that had been plundered from across the ancient Greek world.

            At first no one noticed the corroded lump of cogs among the treasures, but the mechanism has since attracted the, at times, obsessive interest of a small group of scientists. What we now know about the mechanism and its purpose is a fascinating tale of scientific rivalry, low-down skulduggery and eventual glory.

            There is much still to learn about where the machine came from, who made it and what it was for, but the best guess seems to be that it was more must-have executive toy than useful gadget. It modelled the state-of-the-art astronomy of the time: a universe with the Earth at the centre with planets following circular orbits that included apparent wobbles called epicycles.

            The mechanism was probably not used for navigation but perhaps served more as a beautiful representation of an ordered, clockwork universe. "Something to elevate the spirit and get closer to God or the true meaning of things," as Marchant put it during a talk at the Royal Institution in London last night.

            So what about the new stuff? Research from Prof Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, which has yet to be published, suggests that rather than dating from the 1st century BC the Antikythera mechanism may in fact have been constructed in the preceding century.

            The new data concerns the four-year Olympiad dial, which has the names of significant Greek games etched into it – Isthmia, Olympia, Nemea, Pythia and Naa (plus one other that hasn't been deciphered). The first four were major games known throughout the ancient world, but the Naa games, held near Dodona in northwest Greece, were a much more provincial affair that would only have been of local interest. "One possibility is that it was made by or for somebody in Naa," said Marchant, who described the clockwork computer on the Guardian's Science Weekly podcast last year. This also helps to pin down the date because the Romans took over that region in the 2nd century BC. A Greek-inscribed gadget like this, reasons Jones, would not have been made after the Romans took charge.

            The highlight of Marchant's talk, though, was a new animation of the Antikythera device that brings it to life like nothing I have seen before. "That's one of my favourite things at the moment," said Marchant as the packed audience at the Royal Institution broke into spontaneous applause after watching the animation in stunned silence. I think I agree.


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