Ancient Tech: Mechanical Computer cir. 150 BC?

Being an information systems professional, this story about a fascinating machine uncovered by archeologists really caught my eye. The device is called the Antikythera device, named for the location of its discovery. And more recent imaging technology has given some interesting insights:

In 1900, some divers found the wreck of a Roman vessel off the Greek island of Antikythera. Among the other treasures remanded to the Greek government was an unassuming corroded lump. Some time later, the lump fell apart, revealing a damaged machine of unknown purpose, with some large gears and many smaller cogs, plus a few engraved words in Greek. Early studies suggested it was some type of astronomical time-keeping device – researcher Derek J. de Solla Price laid the groundwork by establishing initial tooth counts and suggesting that the device followed the Metonic cycle, a 235-month pattern commonly used to predict eclipses in the ancient world.

Using nothing but an ingenious system of gears, the mechanism could be used to predict the month, day and hour of an eclipse, and even accounted for leap years. It could also predict the positions of the sun and moon against the zodiac, and has a gear train that turns a black and white stone to show the moon’s phase on a given date. It is possible that it could also show the astronomical positions of the planets known to the ancients: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

That’s an impressive engineering achievement, I don’t care what era you’re from. Given that we don’t see multiple examples of this tech throughout history – or that it didn’t spawn Medieval-era mechanical computers assisting siege engine crews to drop catapult loads right onto people’s heads – I have to wonder if what we’re seeing, here, was a brilliant prototype on its way to be presented when a ship went down. In other words, but for extremely bad luck, the world might have had this technology almost 1500 years earlier than it did.

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