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Ancient Greek Computer Reconstructed 266

afaik_ianal writes "A working reconstruction of an ancient Greek computer, the Antikythera mechanism, which was found at the bottom of the ocean in 1900 has been unveiled and is on display at the Technopolis museum, in Athens. The device is believed to have been used to calculate the positions of various celestial bodies including the sun and the moon on any given date. While some guesswork was required in the reconstruction, the bulk of the design is based on updated X-ray photographs of the device."
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Ancient Greek Computer Reconstructed

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 20, 2005 @11:52PM (#13842065)
    Alpha and the Omega and all that.
  • But (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 20, 2005 @11:53PM (#13842066)
    Does it run Linux?
  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Thursday October 20, 2005 @11:54PM (#13842068) Homepage Journal
    ... the clockwork owl in Clash of the Titans?

    Clearly the ancient Greeks had mechanical technology beyond even modern capabilities!
  • by saskboy ( 600063 ) on Thursday October 20, 2005 @11:56PM (#13842081) Homepage Journal
    "The Antikythera mechanism, as it is now known, was originally housed in a wooden box about the size of a shoebox, with dials on the outside and a complex assembly of bronze gear wheels within."

    Anyone place odds on our gold and copper monstrosities from the 70's on surviving thousands of years and people figuring out what they were used for? There's something to be said about elegantly simple one use devices like calculators.
  • Is it a computer? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TeacherOfHeroes ( 892498 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:00AM (#13842101)
    I'm torn between marveling at the enginuity behind this and pointing out that this is really bluring the line between 'computer' and 'glorified watch'. Even the wikipedia article it links to describes this as a clockwork mechanism.

    When the title reads 'ancient greek computer', I would expect something more along the lines of the machine that Babbage designed.
    • No one said it was programmable.
    • Re:Is it a computer? (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The parent comment has a good point. If a computer is simply any man-made device that takes information and makes it more recordable, calculable, or accessible, then this device qualifies, as well as any mechanical watch, or any magnifying glass for that matter.

      Presuming that one could have wound this device forward, to see future positions of these planets, I would argue that one can do that with the minute hand of many mecanical clocks.

      OTOH, I don't know of any mechanical (sprocket and gear) clocks that
    • by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:19AM (#13842175) Homepage Journal
      You're right -- it's a computer that caculates a single problem. OTOH, if the greeks who built this lived on another planet, they could take the same principles and build another device that calculated the positions of those planets. Yet again, this isn't a general planetary positioning device, it just shows the future positions of *particular* planets.

      I'm coming down on the side of 'glorified watch.' Just wind it up and watch it go. No programming, no modularity, no general problem solving. Certainly nowhere near a Turing machine.
    • by Alien Being ( 18488 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:40AM (#13842262)
      "Even the wikipedia article it links to describes this as a clockwork mechanism."

      But then it goes on to explain:

      "The device is all the more impressive for its use of a differential gear, which was previously believed to have been invented in the 16th century."

      It's far more sophisticated than a clockwork. Call it what you want, but it is a significant discovery in the history of analog computers.
    • Pick up a book and read about the computers of WWII.

      American Submarines utilized a complex device called the TDC (Torpedo Data Computer). It was an electromechanical device that would take measurements from he periscope with range, direction, and speed estimates from the crew, and formulate a firing resolution for the Torpedoes.

      Similar devices were used by other navies on Battleships to work out the firing resolutions on the larger cannons.

      Back on point, just because it is clockwork doesn't mean it ca

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:00AM (#13842102)
    for watching ancient Greek porn.
  • Actually... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Evil Butters ( 772669 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:13AM (#13842152)
    ...which was found at the bottom of the ocean in 1900...

    Actually, it was found in 2000. Just that no one thought to correct for Y2K problems!
  • Non-troll mirror (Score:5, Informative)

    by loraksus ( 171574 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:13AM (#13842154) Homepage
    (notice the date, not quite "news")

    The Antikythera mechanism
    The clockwork computer

    Sep 19th 2002
    From The Economist print edition
    An ancient piece of clockwork shows the deep roots of modern technology

    WHEN a Greek sponge diver called Elias Stadiatos discovered the wreck of a cargo ship off the tiny island of Antikythera in 1900, it was the statues lying on the seabed that made the greatest impression on him. He returned to the surface, removed his helmet, and gabbled that he had found a heap of dead, naked women. The ship's cargo of luxury goods also included jewellery, pottery, fine furniture, wine and bronzes dating back to the first century BC. But the most important finds proved to be a few green, corroded lumps--the last remnants of an elaborate mechanical device.

    The Antikythera mechanism, as it is now known, was originally housed in a wooden box about the size of a shoebox, with dials on the outside and a complex assembly of bronze gear wheels within. X-ray photographs of the fragments, in which around 30 separate gears can be distinguished, led the late Derek Price, a science historian at Yale University, to conclude that the device was an astronomical computer capable of predicting the positions of the sun and moon in the zodiac on any given date. A new analysis, though, suggests that the device was cleverer than Price thought, and reinforces the evidence for his theory of an ancient Greek tradition of complex mechanical technology.

    Michael Wright, the curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum in London, has based his new analysis on detailed X-rays of the mechanism using a technique called linear tomography. This involves moving an X-ray source, the film and the object being investigated relative to one another, so that only features in a particular plane come into focus. Analysis of the resulting images, carried out in conjunction with Allan Bromley, a computer scientist at Sydney University, found the exact position of each gear, and suggested that Price was wrong in several respects.

    In some cases, says Mr Wright, Price seems to have "massaged" the number of teeth on particular gears (most of which are, admittedly, incomplete) in order to arrive at significant astronomical ratios. Price's account also, he says, displays internal contradictions, selective use of evidence and unwarranted speculation. In particular, it postulates an elaborate reversal mechanism to get some gears to turn in the right direction.

    Since so little of the mechanism survives, some guesswork is unavoidable. But Mr Wright noticed a fixed boss at the centre of the mechanism's main wheel. To his instrument-maker's eye, this was suggestive of a fixed central gear around which other moving gears could rotate. This does away with the need for Price's reversal mechanism and leads to the idea that the device was specifically designed to model a particular form of "epicyclic" motion.

    The Greeks believed in an earth-centric universe and accounted for celestial bodies' motions using elaborate models based on epicycles, in which each body describes a circle (the epicycle) around a point that itself moves in a circle around the earth. Mr Wright found evidence that the Antikythera mechanism would have been able to reproduce the motions of the sun and moon accurately, using an epicyclic model devised by Hipparchus, and of the planets Mercury and Venus, using an epicyclic model derived by Apollonius of Perga. (These models, which predate the mechanism, were subsequently incorporated into the work of Claudius Ptolemy in the second century AD.)

    A device that just modelled the motions of the sun, moon, Mercury and Venus does not make much sense. But if an upper layer of mechanism had been built, and lost, these extra gears could have modelled the motions of the three other planets known at the time--Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In other words, the device may have been able to predict the positions of the known celestial bodies for any given date with a respectable degre
    • Well, the current /. article isn't really about the device itself, it's actually about the unveiling of a new working reconstruction of the device, based on X-ray imagery of the original.

      So while I'm sure most of the discussion will be about the ancient invention, the article does have a (albeit thin) excuse for its own existence on the front page today: the particular event of the unveiling of the reconstruction. That's the "news," the rest is just background, and as you've pointed out, has already been re
      • by plover ( 150551 ) *
        No, the "current" /. TFA is dated September 19th, 2002. Just a few more years and it'd be the Antikythera article. There's no unveiling taking place this week. It was unveiled three years ago.

        That said, it's still a cool device. Creating a mechanical clockwork that recreates an earth-centric viewpoint of the planetary motion is a remarkable feat in virtually any age.

    • statues lying on the seabed that made the greatest impression on him. He returned to the surface, removed his helmet, and gabbled that he had found a heap of dead, naked women.

      A computer AND pr0n? They need to check their spellings. This was most certainly a geek ship, not a Greek ship.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:24AM (#13842195)
    "While some guesswork was required in the reconstruction, the bulk of the design is based on updated X-ray photographs of the device."

    Reporter: So what do you think the device is for?
    Archaeologist: Well we can't be entirely sure, but if you look at this X-Ray you can see what appears to be a cup-holder.
  • Greek? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tono ( 38883 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:33AM (#13842236) Homepage
    If the wikipedia article is right, that the clockwork was produced in 87BCE then the clockwork was actually Roman, as the whole of modern and ancient Greece was under Roman control at that time. Also, it's not a computer, it's a damn clockwork.
    • Re:Greek? (Score:3, Informative)

      by jericho4.0 ( 565125 )
      The Greeks ended as an empire in 146 BC, when Rome defeated the Achaean League and and razed Cornith as a final gesture of power. The end of Ancient Greece is usually considered the death of Alexander the Great, 323 BC.

      It isn't a computer, though.

      • <snip>device built in 87 BC, greek empire fell 146 BC</snip>

        It isn't a computer, though.

        You misspelled "either". (hint: they counted their years backwards back then.)
      • Re:Greek? (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward
        There was no Greek empire - ever. There was an Athenian empire, but that never controlled all of the Greek city-states. Many of the Greek city-states maintained some degree of autonomy under the Macedonians, Roman Republic, and early Empire. Augustus himself confirmed Athens' autonomy (not independence, mind you, but autonomy - the Roman imperial administration didn't start interfering with internal issues until Caligula, I suspect). The Greeks considered themselves Greeks (and the Romans considered them Gr
        • Not only did the Romans consider the Greeks to be Greek, they would have thought it absurd to call a Greek "Roman". The Romans had a strange relationship with Greece - they admired the ancient teachings, the knowledge, the philosophy of Greek times, and often hired Greeks as teachers and tutors. At the same time, Romans of certain classes during the late Republic and early Imperium also looked down a bit at the Greeks as a softer, more hedonistic people.

          As for your claim about there being no Greek empire
    • Well it could be much older. It is quite "possibly" ;) _atlantisian_ imported by greeks before the fall of Atlantis.
      • It is quite "possibly" ;) _atlantisian_ imported by greeks before the fall of Atlantis.

        Nah, it's been dated to about 87 BC []. My theory is that the Greeks ripped off Atlantean IP. Those Ancient Greeks better hope the Atlanteans didn't sell their IP to SCO before disappearing forever...

    • Greeks consider there to be a continuity in Greek culture from proto-historical civilisations on what is currently Greek soil all the way to current era. Since, historically, every single civilisation that conquered Greece was later assimilated by them (Romans would be an excellent example, actually), that would appear to be the correct way of going through things.
      • Since, historically, every single civilisation that conquered Greece was later assimilated by them (Romans would be an excellent example, actually),

        Even to the point that quite a few "Roman technologies" turn out to actually be of Greek origin.
  • Better tell Daniel Jackson so he can translate the writings. Now if we just find out where the Stargate is.
    • Damned Stargate geeks...I am becoming addicted to that show. Just watched '1969' for the second time. You know, Daniel does look pretty good with those tiny glasses and his hair slicked back.

      But yeah, the ancients...Merlin was one...Do you think Jesus was a goa'uld?
      • My girlfriend decides whether or not a rerun episode is worth watching based on which season it is -- not for the acting, but for how good Shanks looks in that season. Season 6 (when Jackson is ascended) is her favorite; she mumbles something about how "hot" he looks in his little white sweater. It gets a wee bit disturbing.
  • by coredump-0x00001 ( 922856 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:38AM (#13842255)
    The Linux kernel has been successfully ported to the Antikythera mechanism, The highly distilled version of the kernel reportedly can boot in under 160 years and the process also effectively builds large amounts of forearm muscle in the process. calls it the perfect marrige between grassroot technological history and modern innovation, Steve Jobbs is currently preparing to manufacture a mini version of the Antikythera mechanism which will eventually make it's way into every Apple product. Microsoft has called the Antikythera mechanism the most astonishing technologinal innovation the world and microsoft have ever seen, Bill Gates said in an interview, "It's changing the way we have looked at computer technology completely, throughout the entire reign of microsoft we have never even considered this master-designed technology!"
    • Yeah, but does it run Doom?
    • by macshune ( 628296 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @01:49AM (#13842470) Journal
      If the Antikythera mechanism was made by different outfits in ancient Greece:

      Apollo: The mechanism would be highly polished in a mahogany box with an observation window that would crack due to poor workmanship and high profit margins. Device only works within a 10 sq. mile area around Athens. Anywhere else and it's off.

      Microsofticus: The mechanism would be essentially the same as the original, except some planets would be in different locations for 'efficiency' and 'because it runs faster that way.' Pebbles would bounce into the device via conspicuous holes and users would have to purchase a security contract from Symanticus. Not recorded in historical literature because nobody knew how it worked. Re-assembly from rusty bits required legions of scientists.

      Zeus Microsystems: The mechanism would be painted purple and lilac and probably have some confetti around a highly stylized Sun logo on the outside. Giant purple globe in center of device would confound scientists for decades. Works, but gets slower with every passing decade, even though the underlying architecture is salvagable.

      Linux Maximus: Device was buried with engineering diagrams in air-tight, humidity-controlled box at Delphi. Instructions for re-assembly (which it doesn't need) are also recorded within the device itself in every language known at the time as well as with pictures. Does what it needs to do and little else. Also, device was heavily cited in the historical literature and anyone was free to build one as long as they had access to commmodity blacksmith parts. Can be modified to suit different galactic locations, as well, with little effort.

      Hewletticus-Packardus: Originally a papyrus-ink outfit, H.P., decided to get into the astronomy business because its archon, Sappho, wanted to. Ended up building poor version and purchased Compacticus to try and fix things. Didn't happen and Sappho went to Lesbos to become a poet with a zillion Drachma severence pay and H.P. just had to deal.

    • by ozmanjusri ( 601766 ) <> on Friday October 21, 2005 @05:48AM (#13843044) Journal
      Microsoft has called the Antikythera mechanism the most astonishing technologinal innovation the world and microsoft have ever seen

      The Antikythera mechanism is *not* user friendly, and until it is Antikythera will stay with >1% marketshare.

      Take installation. Antikythera zealots are now saying "oh installing is so easy, just do hammer-dowel install package or hit package": Yes, because hitting with "hammer" makes so much more sense to new users than double-whipping a slave that does "setups".

      Antikythera zealots are far too forgiving when judging the difficultly of Antikythera configuration issues and far too harsh when judging the difficulty of slave storage issues. Example comments:

      User: "How do I get Quake 0.03 to run in Antikythera?" Zealot: "Oh that's easy! If you have Redtoga, you have to smelt quake_3_rh_8_i686_010203_glibc.tin, then do chmod +x with a file.....
  • by chris_eineke ( 634570 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:43AM (#13842267) Homepage Journal
    the greeks were geeks. :P
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Has anyone else noticed that the Economist article linked is from 2002?
  • Does anyone else find it slightly amusing that Wikipedia stamps a big warning across the page as soon as it gets Slashdotted? Complete with a warning to look out for trolls? I'm sure it's not new, but I guess I've just always ignored it in the past.

    It's brilliant. Maybe we should include one at the top of every /. article from now on.

    On a sidenote, wouldn't it make sense to link to the static version of a Wikipedia entry page, rather than the top / dynamic one? I guess it would detract from the whole editable purpose of Wikipedia, but in terms of providing a reference -- which is what this article is using it for -- it seems like it would be safer to link against a static page of a specific revision, and then let people see the newest version if they wanted to.

    Of course if they did that, we'd never get to see their 'Do Not Feed The Trolls' warning.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:51AM (#13842298)
    People in Ancient Greece over two thousand years ago had many things the US and other Western countries claim to have invented much later. Everything from democracy, theater, architecture, clocks, mechanical toys, Hero's heat engines, sport competitions, etc. Not only they knew that the Earth was round, they even managed to measure its diamemeter. They are the fathers of mathematics, which is the mother of all knowledge. Ancient Chinese and Egyptians had bits and pieces of mathematical knowledge but they failed to grasp the big picture and unlike the Greeks did not develop any axiomatic system or the concept of a mathematical proof.

    Truly an amazing people, I think they had the greatest impact on world culture, much greater than the Romans, Assirians, Sumerians, Chinese, Japanese or any other old or modern civilization (including the American civilization).

    Sure today's Greeks are not the same as the Ancient Greeks. Nevertheles I feel sad when Modern Greeks are made fun of by other peoples (including Americans).

    By the way I am not Greek or related to any Greek folks.
    • Today's Greeks are exactly the same as the ancient ones from a biological point of view. From a social point of view, though, things are vastly different from what they were back then. There are historical reasons for this (in random order):

      1) 400 years of occupation under Ottoman empire; they missed the renaissance and the industrial revolution. The current Greek state was founded around 1830, yet it is in the first 30 countries when it comes to economic development and standard of living.

      2) 1000 years and
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 21, 2005 @12:53AM (#13842302)
    How long before someone writes a Trojan horse for it?
  • My guess is that its an analogue conputer, but there is a good chance that its a clock.

    If you are familiar with Ptolemy's "Almagest" you know he models the solar system as a series of epicycles. Until Copernicus' time (and after) European and Arab teaching was that these mechanisms were the physical reality but Ptolomy never actually endorsed that view. What if the "Almagest" was the specs for a dedicated astronomical computer and the Antikythera mechanism is the implimentation?

    Then again...clocks became simpler over the centuries. Our modern clocks only show hours, minutes, seconds and perhaps the date. Mediaeval clocks showed years, months, weeks, days and hours as well as planetary positions, seasons, and solar and lunar eclipses. Their mechanisms were more complex than mechanical clocks and watches (remember them?) produced in the 20th century. Mechanical clocks built in the 1970s were more accurate but less complex than mechanical clocks built in the 1270s in Europe. Clocks built in earlier centuries in Arab lands were equally complex. The Antikythera mechanism could have been just one in a line of astronomical clocks.
  • old news (Score:2, Interesting)

    by kahrytan ( 913147 )
    This might be old news but it is just a reminder that people from ancient times were not stupid. The people around Mediterranean were smart and understand how things work.

    Also make note of Heron of Alexandria. A great Greek inventor who invented machine gun, steam power, vending machine and many other mechanical machines. []
  • All these adventure games with ancient mechanical things --- I always knew that wasn't fantasy.

    Pity there are no pictures in the Article.
  • by cammoblammo ( 774120 ) < minus pi> on Friday October 21, 2005 @02:58AM (#13842649)
    So they've copied a several thousand year old computer, software and hardware. Surely there's a lawsuit there somewhere.
  • 2 backup dudes at the crankshaft.

    (The audio output used master-slave speaker configuration)
  • From Wikipedia:

    This article has recently been linked from Slashdot.
    Please keep an eye on the page history for errors or vandalism.

    Isn't it nice knowing that Slashdot has such a nice reputation ?

    But, to get on topic: How is this a computer ? It can't be programmed, it doesn't have a memory or anything. It is simply a mechanical astronomical clock. An impressive clock, certainly, but that does not make it a computer.

  • by wikinerd ( 809585 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @04:31AM (#13842859) Journal
    The linked Economist article says that ancient Greeks (I am Greek) believed in a universe where Earth was at its centre. I don't agree with that. Geocentrism was the most accepted theory, but not all Greeks believed it. There were Heliocentrists in ancient Greece. Search Google for Greek and Heliocentrism and see what you can find. Learn about Aristarchus of Samos.
  • by Betabug ( 58015 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @04:35AM (#13842873) Homepage
    I've spent an afternoon in the Archaeological Museum in Athens [] and without knowing the story stumbled upon this thing (no mention of the "clock/computer" in the weblog post though). It is impressive to look at, among the other ancient stuff it has an otherworldly air, it's not impressive in the sense of how big or complex it looks. Of course you can't see that much from the object itself, but I can imagine that people first looked at it and noticed that there is something really unusual about gears appearing in something so old.

    The bronze exhibition also has other fine worked small stuff (and the gold stuff exhibition has even smaller and more detailed worked stuff), so I give the old Greeks the ability to work on this level. Perhaps not your neighbourhood blacksmith, but some experts were definitely able to do this level of work.
  • Some folks think that all computers ought to be programmable. That's plain wrong. A non-programmable device can be a computer. The Antikethyra mechanism isn't simple and is definitely an ancient Greek computer, probably built in Rhodes island.
  • by wikinerd ( 809585 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @04:47AM (#13842908) Journal
    Ancient Greeks (I am Greek) had built complete moving planetaria from before 212 BCE. They had the knowledge and the technology to predict and actually show the movements of all planets they knew about. Ancient Greeks also had simple small steam engines and pumps.
  • Yes, it's a computer, an analog computer. Before there were digital computers, a whole big heapin canful of computation was done with slide-rules, nomographs, sextants, and other devices that COMPUTED answers using mechanical (proportional) means. And Richard Feynman was mighty dubious about this device-- is it likely that just one of these survived all that time? And they'd be useless for navigation in the Mediterranean-- you need a very accurate clock to compute longitude, which didnt come about til th
  • by Viking Coder ( 102287 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @09:05AM (#13843712)
    Kent Brockman: I, for one, welcome our new Greek overlords.

    Kent Brockman (listens to earpiece)

    Kent Brockman: This just in, the classical Greek civilization fell thousands of years ago. And I, for one, welcome back our Republican overlords.
  • Blind Faith in Science Beware, because valid science can give wrong results. Valid reproducable observations that lead to a hypothesis and valid proven predictions does not make it "true". Based upon the Article, the Greeks used this to *accurately* predict the positions of planets. This meets all four steps of our modern scientific method.
    • 1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena. The Greeks see the planets, moon, and sun move across the sky
    • 2. Formulation of an hypothesis to
    • You make a very interesting point although I disagree completely with your statement that "we accept the inaccurate model [global warming] on faith and reject the accurate model that this device "proves"."

      Neither scientist nor scientific process accepts models based on faith. Current theories in science are always based on best-fit models of the observable facts. No scientist claims that new models won't supplant older theories as newer, better, more accurate observations are made. But the burden of p
  • IPod (Score:2, Funny)

    by NotFamous ( 827147 )
    I hear the Ipod's thumbwheel navigation patent is now endangered by prior art...
  • OK, this may be off topic, but does anyone else find the word "Technopolis" to be really cool? It has a great blend of ancient and modern all in one...
  • That's GNU/Antikythera if you please.
  • by skeptictank ( 841287 ) on Friday October 21, 2005 @11:07AM (#13844567)
    Here is a link to an article about how the device could have been used to replace tables for determining longitude. ing03/Antikythera.html []

e-credibility: the non-guaranteeable likelihood that the electronic data you're seeing is genuine rather than somebody's made-up crap. - Karl Lehenbauer