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Linguistic Clue Pushes Back Origin of "World's Oldest Computer" 141

Posted by timothy
from the multidisciplinary-isn't-just-for-the-dungeon dept.
Calopteryx points out a piece at New Scientist which suggests that the Antikythera mechanism may be even older than previously thought; an ancient Greek word on of the device's dials suggests the device may date to the early second century BC. The article is accompanied by a great animation of its (deduced) workings, too.
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Linguistic Clue Pushes Back Origin of "World's Oldest Computer"

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  • Watch, next thing you know that dial is how they got their ancient IP addresses.
    • by RuBLed (995686) on Friday July 31, 2009 @02:17AM (#28893149)
      My gut says someone is already thinking of adding this device as part of a movie plot. sigh...
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by timothy (36799) Works for Slashdot

        Two syllables, one color-word? And the color word might remind you of the content of (what I hear) is a vital plot device in another movie which is apparently a bit better than (say) The Da Vinci Code called Two Girls One Cup?

        Because I suspect he's just floating in a pool of his own drool trying to work this device into an awful novel.

        timothy

      • by jandersen (462034) on Friday July 31, 2009 @03:04AM (#28893333)

        My gut says someone is already thinking of adding this device as part of a movie plot. sigh...

        Really? Mine generally just growls.

      • As far as I know, Clive Cussler already plotted a Dirk Pitt novel around this device. Can't remember which one though, he's quite a prolific writer.
        • by AshtangiMan (684031) on Friday July 31, 2009 @08:36AM (#28895259)
          If by prolific you mean terrible then I agree :)
          • Re:fiction plot (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Anne Honime (828246) on Friday July 31, 2009 @07:37PM (#28904387)

            Hum. My english level is not good enough for me to take such a stance. Let's say I was happy to read his novels because they were easy enough for my poor understanding the moment I needed it. Now that I've improved a bit, I tend to read more mature books. Before you criticize me, just think for a moment how many fiction books you read in another language than your own (I don't need to know the answer ;-) ).

            This said, I think there are wonderful novelists in the US at the moment, and this is pretty exciting. But even Clive Cussler is someone to be proud of, this is a kind of litterature we used to have at the end of the XIXth century in France, and in my opinion, we badly miss it. Alexandre Dumas was widely despised too, in his days, for plotting unrealistic stories, and lambasted for his "poor" style. Nevertheless, his books remains because they were bigger than life (and made better stories than historical accuracy would have produced alone ; Dumas used to say you could rape history, in order to produce beautiful offsprings).

            Nowdays, most french novelists are writing about their own navel, and it's awfully boring. This is largely the product of the narrow minds of professional critics who value style over everything. Crafting a good story seems to be a lost art. Fear the day when you might think the same of your own country writers !

            • by RockDoctor (15477)

              Hum. My english level is not good enough for me to take such a stance.

              The original poster was making a joke. Your use of "prolific" was correct, since it means "someone who has done a lot of [whatever]".
              I couldn't comment on the quality of Clive Custler's writing ; I don't recall having read any of his books. But I do see lots of them cluttering up the bookshops, so he's undoubtedly a prolific author.

            • Yes, a joke. I started reading CC novels when I was 15, and I loved them. If I had never read any until today, and started today then I would probably really enjoy them.

              My joke really was based on the idea that his books are fairly formulaic (essentially the reluctant hero model that most hollywood and pop fiction novels are based on . . . the Joseph Campbell model). I have felt that the american art of the novel has been dead for a long time, perhaps the 50s and 60s saw the last of the good ones, thoug
    • Oh, you and your wild anachronisms. Next you'll be telling us they played D&D in ancient Rome!

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by dkf (304284)

        Oh, you and your wild anachronisms. Next you'll be telling us they played D&D in ancient Rome!

        No, but they did have dungeons and live-action runs of Gladiators.

        • by peragrin (659227)

          The original LAG was a game killer just like it is today.
          Only back then you really did die.

      • Oh, you and your wild anachronisms. Next you'll be telling us they played D&D in ancient Rome!

        I don't know about Rome, but I hear the Egyptians were famous for their games of Dungeon Draggin'.
      • by EdZ (755139)
        You could at least post the obligatory XKCD [xkcd.com] link.
  • by yogibaer (757010) on Friday July 31, 2009 @02:35AM (#28893221)
    This device is awesome and gives you a glimpse what the "Ancients" ("Stargate" pun intended) already knew and how much of our history is lost. Imagine for a moment if there had been an uninterrupted development from the knowledge that went into this little box for 2000 years. Makes Steling/Gibbons tale of "The Difference Engine" pale by comparison. I read a fascinating book about the discovery and science of this mechanism ("Decoding the Heavens": http://www.decodingtheheavens.com/ [decodingtheheavens.com]) and it ist is truly mind boggling how much skill went into this box, 1500 years before we "modern" people build anything remotely as sophisticated. While reading the book I had some trouble to imagine all the wheels and gears described and the full res video is very helpful (can be found here: http://www.mogi-vice.com/Antikythera/Antikythera-it.html [mogi-vice.com] (italian)). Very well done, indeed, Signore!.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by pz (113803)

      Here's the thing. This is a beautiful machine, yes. It embodies tremendous amounts of skill and knowledge, yes. But then, so did creating the beautiful structures that remain in Ancient Greece that were well-documented and we know are about 2500 years old (somewhat older than this device). The flutes on columns of buildings like the Parthenon, for example, were cut by hand, and yet are demonstrably as perfect as those cut by machine in modern times. The skill to do such precision work -- by many worker

    • From Wikipedia:

      It is now thought to have been built about 150-100 BC. Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until a thousand years later.

      Wow. What happened for that thousand years?

  • Didn't I just see this on 'Warehouse 13'?
    *Spoiler Warning!!!*

    Hint:
    He loved puzzles, look for secret compartments!

  • Is it a 'computer' ? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Richard Kirk (535523) on Friday July 31, 2009 @04:35AM (#28893807)

    If you read the comments, there is a hot but pointless discussion on whether this device is actually a 'computer'.

    My father worked in RAE Farnbrough in the '40s and '50's. The first early 'Pilot-ACE' prototypes were developed by Manchester University and the National Physical Laboratory. Another less well known one was made for the Ministry of Defence and sent to Farnbrough for calculating things like air flow over wing profiles. The NPL director at the time seems to have had a deep distrust of computers, and the early versions were explicitly forbidden to execute conditional jumps ( IF..THEN..ELSE ). The computer would solve flow equations by shooting from the boundary conditions, and then stop. A human operator then had to press a key to instruct it to execute the jump back to the beginning of the loop to take the next iteration. I can only imagine how irritating Alan Turing must have found that - to go right to the edge of computational completeness, and then stop just short. Aaaaugh!

    Arguments about who made the first computer tend to get rabid, fast, so people often define a computer as something that can make a conditions jump based on it's previous calculations, and not just like a player piano, rewinding its roll when it has detected the end. This is a nice, clear rule - either the machine can do conditional jumps or it can't - so it tends to get invoked when things get heated. The Antikythera mechanism had no need of a conditional jump. I have no doubt that the people who made it could have designed it to do so if they had wanted to, just as Charles Babbage could have done for the Difference Engine. However, in both cases, they did not, so in both cases, according to the narrow definition that requires a computer to do a conditional jump, this is a 'calculator' and not a 'computer'.

    I suspect the Antikythera mechanism may have had immense value for calculating the tides and the safe dates for shipping. As such, you can imagine the ship's captain chucking it over the side in an emergency, like a U-Boat commander disposing of an Enigma machine, rather than let it be captured, and copied. Maybe this is why these devices have vanished so completely from known history.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by tsjaikdus (940791)
      I agree. It's an orrery. It's not something we would call a computer today, however amazing it is. Babbage's Difference Engine wasn't a computer in that sense too. The Difference Engine is more like an ALU. Today, two Difference Engines are in existance, one is in the science museum in London, the other one will be shipped to some MicroSoft billionaire anytime soon. The machine is about GBP 1 million. Babbage's Analytical Engine, however, that's what we would call a computer today. A real nice box of tricks
    • by smoker2 (750216)
      So it's not a computer because it doesn't conform to the narrowest of definitions ? By any normal definition, a computer is a device (or person) that takes in data and uses that data to produce different data according to a fixed set of rules. Under this definition, the Antikythera mechanism is most definitely a computer. It handles IF / THEN rules mechanically. IF a certain marker is aligned with another distinct point, THEN a certain result is produced. IF that marker is aligned with a different point, it
      • by tsjaikdus (940791)

        IF a certain marker is aligned with another distinct point, THEN a certain result is produced. IF that marker is aligned with a different point, it produces a different result(ELSIF). If it doesn't align with a marker at all you get your ELSE. The only limitation is that the inputs are restricted to those available on the mechanism.

        There's no value added. It's like saying it's true because it's true and it's true because it's not false.

        The computer should be able to change its program based on a previous result. That's what "if then else" is all about. The antikythera can not do that.

      • by gardyloo (512791)

        So a combination lock is a computer? Perhaps so.
        So, indeed, a keyed lock is a computer?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by itsdapead (734413)

      If you read the comments, there is a hot but pointless discussion on whether this device is actually a 'computer'.

      Only because some people have unilaterally declared that "computer" always means "universal Turing machine" rather than "something or someone that computes".

      Humptey-dumptey syndrome ("words mean precisely what I intend them to mean") and the pathological inability to accept that words can have multiple similar but different meanings seems to be an industrial disease amongst nerds.

      Guys: if you want a new word to always mean something highly specific and techical then iether make one up or use something fro

    • Let's get formal. (Score:3, Informative)

      If we define "computer" as "turing machine", then yes it is a computer.

      People are using "IF-THEN-ELSE" as a touchstone for this. This is wrong. What the Antikythera machine is (if you're willing to encode the input and output digitally, which you may as well because of gear lash slop) is a Turing machine with an unwritable tape, otherwise known as an FSA (Finite State Automaton).

      An FSA, since it's a Turing machine, does effectively do IF-THEN-ELSE operations. The important thing is that it is not pr

    • by radtea (464814) on Friday July 31, 2009 @09:27AM (#28895869)

      Maybe this is why these devices have vanished so completely from known history.

      What is more likely is that devices like this were never widely known because there was very little that resembled a scientific community, so there was no way to make such knowledge public. By "no way" I mean there was neither the technical means of dissemination nor the social means of rewarding the creators of such knowledge.

      Science is a public, communal activity. Until the founding of the Royal Society in the 1600's there was no way for the nascent scientific community to actualize itself in archival journals and shared results. Such "science" as there was was carried on by practitioners who swore oaths of secrecy (much of the actual text of the vaunted Hipocratic Oath is actually about not teaching anyone but the sons of physicians any trade secrets, and not stepping on the toes of any of the other medical services unions.)

      It is therefore likely that similar techniques and ideas were rediscovered and lost many times during the past few thousand years, in a wide variety of fields. And extreme example of this is knowledge of the diameter of the Earth, which the Greeks knew pretty well, but which was sufficiently debatable 1500 years later that a nutjob like Columbus could convince people that it was about half the actual figure.

      The lack of comprehensive, authoritative publications embedded in a living community of empirical investigators meant that knowledge tended to wither and die with time, resulting in relatively slow accumulation over the long term.

      • What is more likely is that devices like this were never widely known because there was very little that resembled a scientific community, so there was no way to make such knowledge public.

        In Greece at the time, quite a lot of what Aristotle and his friends wrote survived. An influential teacher would attract followers, and there was usually the feeling that the 'right answer' could be reached by dialogue, so this is not Science as we know it, Jim, but it does have many of the general properties.

        I am not a historian, but I would argue that the Greeks of Athens and Pergamon were a rich society with a leisured class that allowed people to indulge in abstract thought. Philip Ball in "Bright E

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      When we say "computer" we aren't talking about abaci or slide rules. We're talking about nearly-turing-complete digital computers, which if they had unlimited store would all be theoretically capable of emulating anything any of the others can do (over time.)

      So, NO, the Antikythera device does NOT have ANY bearing on the argument as we typically think of it. If it did, then we never would have had to discuss colossus et al, because again, the slide rule precedes them (As do other similar calculators.)

    • by epine (68316)

      The value of if/then for this mechanism is completely obvious. If the sun doesn't come up tomorrow, without fully taking this into account, the phase of the moon calculation will come out horribly wrong.

      Computing was hard back in the day. Moses climbed Mount Sinai for some peace and quiet while he chiseled out his astrolabe's stack dump as part of a warranty claim, ate some strange mushrooms on the way up to relieve the tedium, and the rest is history. (One wrong chisel stroke and your claim is rejected

  • by vorlich (972710) on Friday July 31, 2009 @07:46AM (#28894791) Homepage Journal
    Existed in prehistory and takes the form of the Harry Potter Wizards hat, where the markings are used to calculate the position of the moon and to predict the seasons. You can see a magnificent example of this in the Staatliche Museen Berlin http://www.smb.museum/smb/sammlungen [www.smb.museum] /details.php?lang=en&objID=15&p=24&typeId=1&img_id=2 .

    a 3,000-year-old 30in high Bronze Age cone of beaten gold that was discovered in Switzerland in 1995 and purchased by the museum the following year.

    Full story in a Telegraph article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/1388038/Mysterious-gold-cones-hats-of-ancient-wizards.html [telegraph.co.uk]

    And, no it doesn't run linux but it may be possible to imagine a beowulf cluster of them.

  • How does this actually date it? So what if it has a word older than the previous dating? WTH does that have to do with it. Now if it had a word newer than the estimated date then I'd say that the date has to be adjusted. But once a word is created it continues to exist forward in time so how real really is this discovery. This is hardly 1984 where the whole language was changed to suit political ends as required.
  • by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Friday July 31, 2009 @02:58PM (#28901021)
    The most important question I have about the Antikythera mechanism is: does it compute utilizing a heliocentric solar system model? If it does, then constructing a device to model the existing solar system would have given you the heliocentric answer as the most simplified solution to the heavens very much pre-Copernicus.

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