The Student Perspectives category collects posts written by current CityLIS students.
Carlos Woodcock investigates one of the oldest known analog computers, believed to have been created sometime around 200 BCE – 150 BCE.
As we study the men and women who gave birth to the ideas which would inform modern computing as we know it today, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a device that has always fascinated me called the Antikythera mechanism. As a child, I first stumbled upon it, reading about lost shipwrecks and their treasures as I was always fond of a good treasure hunt. In 1901 a sponge diver off the island of Antikythera in Greece found the remains of a Roman cargo ship while diving for sponges. When the wreck was salvaged the divers brought up loads of artifacts, including bronze and marble statues, pottery, glassware, jewelry, coins, and among them an inconspicuous wooden box about the size of a shoebox containing what seemed to be a lump of corroded bronze. The box was held in storage for 2 years until someone noticed that a finely crafted metal gear was embedded in the lump of corroded metal. From there, the mystery of the mechanism was born, and it is still being examined and speculated about by scientists to this day.
The device is believed to have been created sometime around 200 BCE – 150 BCE and is the oldest known analog computer as it could calculate at least eight different outputs with only one input. The device is comprised of 37 gears, 17 axis, and 8 pointers and calculated celestial positions far in advance. It also had the ability to predict eclipses of the moon and sun to the accuracy of an hour, as well as calculate the exact dates of future Olympic games, as they happened every two or four years, but the dates for them were based on the phases of the moon. A functioning replica was created in 2011 and a scaled-up version in 2016 that was updated with the findings of new inscriptions on the device that function as a sort of “users manual” for it. Work continues with x-ray technology to continue deciphering the mechanism, but it may be harder to find out much more from it as only about one-third of the original device remains to this day.
While the Antikythera mechanism is a far way off from Alan Turing’s universal Turing machine and the modern digital computer, it is still a fascinating piece of computer history. Because, unlike the universal Turing machine it can’t be tuned to a number of different tasks via specific programs, I would say that it is probably more in line with an isolated program, but the fact that it could calculate many different things as a self-contained device is an incredible feat of engineering given how long ago it was made. I know this seems to have ended up as less of a DITA topic and more of a history lesson but when we got into the early computer tech I couldn’t help diving back into a bit of research on the Antikythera mechanism and updating myself on the ongoing research of it. My favorite part of the mystery behind it is the fact that nothing else even remotely close to this level of tech has ever been recovered from this time period, and we aren’t even sure how they would have fabricated something like this. It is hard to believe something this intricate could have just been a one-off thing, so it fascinates me to think what else like it was out there once and has now been lost or destroyed simply by the nature of time moving forward.
I will add some links here if anyone wants to dive a little deeper into this:
These and other articles published by Carlos can be found on his LinkedIn profile.