SCIENCE
12/02/2014 02:17 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

'World's First Computer' May Be Even Older Than We Thought

Giovanni Dall Orto

For more than a century, scientists have been scratching their heads over a strange clocklike device recovered from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901.

The so-called Antikythera Mechanism is made up of a series of bronze gears and is believed to have been used to predict eclipses and the positions of the planets and to track the dates of the Olympics.

Still, scientists have continued to debate when the "world's first computer" was made--and who made it.

A 2006 study dated the device to 150-100 B.C. But a new analysis of the mechanism's eclipse-tracking dial by scientists at the University of Puget Sound in Washington and the National University of Quilmes in Argentina indicates that the device's built-in calendar likely began at 205 B.C.

This suggests that the Antikythera Mechanism must be at least 50 to 100 years older than previously thought. If that's the case, the researchers say, the device could not have relied on trigonometry, which emerged during the 2nd century B.C. Instead, it was probably based on arithmetical principles the Greeks borrowed from the Babylonians.

For now, the mystery of who built the device remains unsolved. While some experts have linked the mechanism to legendary Greek thinkers like Archimedes and Hipparchus, the new study suggests it's too early to say for sure.

We know so little about ancient Greek astronomy,” study co-author Dr. James Evans, a professor of physics at the University of Puget Sound, told The New York Times. “Only small fragments of work have survived. It’s probably safer not to try to hang it on any one particular famous person.”

The research was published online on Nov. 15 in the journal Archive for History of Exact Science.

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