Ancient Greek artefact was an 'astronomical computer'

An astronomical instrument built by the Ancient Greeks in the 2nd century BC has turned out to be a complex computer for calculating the relative position of the sun, the moon and the planets.

Scientists studied the internal workings of the machine by using a sophisticated medical scanner. They concluded it was at least 1,000 years ahead of its time.

The Antikythera Mechanism was rescued from a Roman shipwreck at the turn of the last century but its precise function was little understood because it was broken into 82 pieces.

Made of bronze and wood, the device was evidently an instrument of some sort because it used a complicated set of gears to move a series of concentric wheels and pointers that appeared to predict movements of astronomical objects. But scientists were surprised to find it was in fact a sophisticated analogue computer that acted as a long-term calendar for predicting lunar and solar eclipses and planetary movements.

An international team of scientists drawn from many different disciplines took part in the study. Their picture of how the device worked and what it was intended to do has astonished classical scholars.

Professor Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University, a leading member of the research team, said: "This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop.

"Whoever has done this had done it extremely well. It does raise the question of what else were they making at the time. In terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa."

The scientists, including researchers from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, found the gearing mechanism of the device acted as a long-term calendar, enabling its operators to track the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even calculate the irregular orbit of the moon.

"Calendars were important to ancient societies for timing agricultural activity and fixing religious festivals," the scientists write in a study published in the journal Nature.

"Eclipses and planetary motions were often interpreted as omens, while the calm regularity of the astronomical cycles must have been philosophically attractive in an uncertain and violent world," they say.

Greek sponge-divers discovered the Roman shipwreck off the island of Antikythera in 1900. A year later, archaeologists recovered the device which had been submerged for about 2,000 years.

The shipwreck was dated to about 65BC but the instrument was thought to have been made earlier, between 100BC and 150BC, possibly by the great Greek astronomer Hipparchos, who, at that time, lived on the island of Rhodes.

Astronomers believe Hipparchos was probably involved because he was the first to track the irregularities in the orbit of the moon, which the device seems to be designed to predict.

There are three dials on the device. The front dial displays the position of the sun and the moon in the zodiac and a corresponding calendar of 365 days, which could be adjusted for leap years. The back dials track the long-term lunar cycle, including the Metonic cycle of 19 years, when the same phase of the moon returns on the same date of the year.

The dials also track the Callippic cycle of 76 years, when the moon returns to the same position in the sky relative to the zodiac and its monthly lunar phase.

Francois Charette, an astronomer at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, said finding such a complicated computer in Ancient Greece was like finding the plans for a steam engine in Renaissance Italy.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
tech
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

The Jenrick Group: Resident Maintenance Manager

£50000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Resident Maintenance...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'