Greek "Computer" Tracked Ancient Olympics, Other Games

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 30, 2008

A Greek machine sometimes called the world's first computer could have helped sports fans track the cyclical schedule of ancient athletic contests—including the Olympic games, new research reports.

The Antikythera mechanism, which dates to around 150 to 100 B.C., is a complex amalgamation of bronze gears, dials, and text inscriptions that was created perhaps a thousand years before the next known device of similar sophistication.

Though many of its functions remain mysterious, previous research found that the device tracked and displayed the date, a 19-year calendar, and the positions of the sun and moon.

The mechanism even predicted eclipses—though with limited accuracy—using an 18-year eclipse cycle, called the Saros cycle, that was known to Babylonian astronomers centuries before the mechanism was built. (Read how the ancient Chinese predicted eclipses.)

Now members of an international collaboration called the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project have used high-resolution 3-D scans to examine "slices" of the mechanism's 82 fragments.

The scans allowed the team to read previously hidden text inscriptions that showed an unexpected feature: a dial for tracking the timing of the Panhellenic games.

"It really stood out as something that is not astronomy," said team member Alexander Jones, a classicist at New York University.

"It has nothing to do with the heavens or the planets. It's a clear sign that this thing wasn't just [for scientific observation], it was to relate human institutions and human time to the heavens."

Let the Games Begin

In 1901 sponge divers recovered a corroded, calcified lump about the size of a laptop computer amid the treasures of a first-century B.C. Roman merchant ship that sunk near the Greek island of Andikíthira.

Although the mechanism's moving parts no longer work, x-ray scans allowed scientists to piece together its layers of gear wheels and read some of the inscriptions around its dials.

The latest scans revealed previously unseen glyphs, including the word "Nemea," which refers to the site of the Nemean games, part of the Panhellenic games.

Continued on Next Page >>


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