Friday, 21 October 2005

Computer Greeks

From the ABC :
A reconstructed version of the world's oldest computer has been unveiled in Greece.

The 2,000-year-old device was found by chance on the ocean floor more than a century ago.

Michael Wright, a former senior curator at London's Science Museum, unveiled the complex collection of gears and dials at a conference on ancient Greek inventions.

Experts attending the symposium praised the model as the best yet of a device that is believed to have calculated the motions of the sun, moon and planets.

Mr Wright said the shoe-sized box object not only illustrated the ancient Greeks' love for gadgets but how advanced they were technologically.
And from the June 1959 Scientific American :
Among the treasures of the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens are the remains of the most complex scientific object that has been preserved from antiquity. Corroded and crumbling from 2,000 years under the sea, its dials, gear wheels and inscribed plates present the historian with a tantalizing problem. Because of them we may have to revise many of our estimates of Greek science. By studying them we may find vital clues to the true origins of that high scientific technology which hitherto has seemed peculiar to our modern civilization, setting it apart from all cultures of the past.
From the evidence of the fragments one can get a good idea of the appearance of the original object [see illustration on page 62]. Consisting of a box with dials on the outside and a very complex assembly of gear wheels mounted within, it must have resembled a well- made 18ih-century clock. Doors hinged to the box served to protect the dials, and on all available surfaces of box, doors and dials there were long Greek inscriptions describing the operation and construction of the instrument. At least 20 gear wheels of the mechanism have been preserved, including a very sophisticated assembly of gears that were mounted eccentrically on a turntable and probably functioned as a sort of epicyclic or differential, gear-system.
Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known. from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from all that we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age we should have felt that such a device could not exist. Some historians have suggested that the Greeks were not interested in experiment because of a contempt-perhaps induced by the existence of the institution of slavery-for manual labor. On the other hand it has long been recognized that in abstract mathematics and in mathematical astronomy they were no beginners but rather "fellows of another college" who reached great heights of sophistication. Many of the Greek scientific devices known to us from written descriptions show much mathematical ingenuity, but in all cases the purely mechanical part of the design seems relatively crude. Gearing was clearly known to the Greeks, but it was used only in relatively simple applications. They employed pairs of gears to change angular speed or mechanical ad- vantage, or to apply power through a right angle, as in the water-driven mill.
Even the most complex mechanical devices described by the ancient writers Hero of Alexandria and Vitruvius contained only simple gearing. For example, the taximeter used by the Greeks to measure the distance travelled by the wheels of a carriage employed only pairs of gears (or gears and worms) to achieve the necessary ratio of movement. It could be argued that if the Greeks knew the principle of gearing, they should have had no difficulty in constructing mechanisms as complex as epicyclic gears. We now know from the fragments in the National Museum that the Greeks did make such mechanisms, but the knowledge is so unexpected that some scholars at first thought that the fragments must belong to some more modern device.
The Antikythera mechanism must therefore be an arithmetical counterpart of the much more familiar geometrical models of the solar system which were known to Plato and Archimedes and evolved into the orrery and the planetarium. The mechanism is like. a great astronomical clock without an escapement, or like a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts to save tedious calculation. It is a pity that we have no way of knowing whether the device was turned automatically or by hand. It might have been held in the hand and turned by a wheel at the side so that it would operate as a computer, possibly for astrological use. I feel it is more likely that it was permanently mounted, perhaps set in a statue, and displayed as an exhibition piece. In that case it might well have been turned by the power from a water clock or some other device. Perhaps it is just such a wondrous device that was mounted inside the famous Tower of Winds in Athens. It is certainly very similar to the great astronomical cathedral clocks that were built all over Europe during the Renaissance.
It is a bit frightening to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology.


Lloyd Flack said...


A very good book on Hellenistic science and engineering is The Forgotten Revolution by Lucio Russo. I thing he does take things a bit too far and speculates too much. Nevertheless he does show just how advanced and promissing that period was.

TimT said...

The wonders of the world! When I was at school, the oldest computer was Babbage's difference engine, but thanks to science, computers just keep getting older!