Is This the World’s Oldest Computer?

After 12 years of research, archaeologists decipher instructions for the 2,000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism.

An international team of scientists announced this week that they've finally sleuthed out the secrets of the world famous Antikythera Mechanism.

Well, it's world famous in archaeology circles, anyway. Discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece in 1901, the Antikythera Mechanism has fascinated and puzzled scholars for more than a century. The intricate device appears to be a high-tech relic of an ancient age, a clockwork mechanism used to calculate astronomical events and other celestial happenings. Dated to around 150 BCE, it's been termed the world's oldest mechanical computer.

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After more than 10 years of intensive study using cutting-edge computer scanning equipment, the research team presented new findings concerning the famous relic. Scientists have been able to decode about 3,500 characters of explanatory text -- a kind of user's manual -- that were previously indecipherable.

The tiny lettering on the device, as small as 1.2 millimeters, was engraved on inside and outward-facing panels of the device, which was originally encased in a wooden cabinet with dozens of interlocking brass gears. The deciphered language more or less confirms what archaeologists have suspected all along: The Antikythera Mechanism was designed as a clockwork calendar that showed the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and the planets, and even the time of predicted eclipses.

"It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos," researcher Alexander Jones said at the news conference, according to an Associated Press report of the event. "It's like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment."

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This announcement caps 12 years of research in which technicians and scholars used x-ray machines and other scanning technology to analyze the 82 surviving fragments of the original device. Each individual letter in on the corroded plates was reconstructed using dozens of scans from different angles. The research team said they have now deciphered nearly all of text on the fragments, which were originally recovered by free diving sponge fishermen.

As it happens, archaeologists are currently revisiting the site of the original shipwreck -- you can read more about that here. Or check out this fabulous New Yorker piece from a few years back, which provides a nice overview of all things Antikythera.

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