The Antikythera mechanism of two millennia ago, retrieved from a shipwreck in 1901, modeled the known universe. It has sometimes been called “world’s first computer.”
After several years of studying the mechanism and Babylonian records of eclipses, the collaborators have pinpointed the date when the mechanism was timed to begin—205 B.C. This suggests the mechanism is 50–100 years older than most researchers in the field have thought.
The new work fills a gap in ancient scientific history by indicating that the Greeks were able to predict eclipses and engineer a highly complex machine—sometimes called the world’s first computer—at an earlier stage than believed. It also supports the idea that the eclipse prediction scheme was not based on Greek trigonometry (which was nonexistent in 205 B.C.)—but on Babylonian arithmetical methods, borrowed by the Greeks.
Far more conjecturally, this timing also makes an old story told by Cicero more plausible—that a similar mechanism was created by Archimedes and carried back to Rome by the Roman general Marcellus, after the sack of Syracuse and the death of Archimedes in 212 B.C. If the Antikythera mechanism did indeed use an eclipse predictor that worked best for a cycle starting in 205 BC, the likely origin of this machine is tantalizingly close to the lifetime of Archimedes. More.
Here’s the abstract:
The eclipse predictor (or Saros dial) of the Antikythera mechanism provides a wealth of astronomical information and offers practically the only possibility for a close astronomical dating of the mechanism. We apply a series of constraints, in a sort of sieve of Eratosthenes, to sequentially eliminate possibilities for the epoch date. We find that the solar eclipse of month 13 of the Saros dial almost certainly belongs to solar Saros series 44. And the eclipse predictor would work best if the full Moon of month 1 of the Saros dial corresponds to May 12, 205 BCE, with the exeligmos dial set at 0. We also examine some possibilities for the theory that underlies the eclipse times on the Saros dial and find that a Babylonian-style arithmetical scheme employing an equation of center and daily velocities would match the inscribed times of day quite well. Indeed, an arithmetic scheme for the eclipse times matches the evidence somewhat better than does a trigonometric model. (paywall)
Lost manuscripts, recovered after exhaustive efforts, establish Archimedes as the founder of combinatorics
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