Ancient calculator charts planets

What do a 2,000-year-old Greek mechanical device called Antikythera and today’s computers have in common? David Ferro, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology at Weber State University, said he believes it is simply logic that links these two devices. Ferro gave a seminar on Wednesday as part of the Greek Festival going on at WSU. Most of the research presented at the seminar came from the book that Ferro co-authored called “Computers: The Life Story of a Technology,” which gives a global history of computing from ancient days to modern times.

Eric Swedin, co-author of the book, gave a brief background of Antikythera and how it was found. In 1900, a sponge-fishing vessel was driven into an island called Antikythera. While stuck on the island, the crew decided to fish for some sponge. What they found was far more interesting and revolutionary. The crew found a shipwreck containing pieces of an ancient mechanical calculator designed by the Greeks. The shipwreck was said to be from approximately 70 B.C., making this mechanical device more than 2,000 years old.

It was first thought to be an astronomical device designed to calculate lunar and solar eclipses. Ten years ago, a team of scientists was finally granted access to the device after 4o years of petitioning. They took high-quality pictures using photo equipment borrowed from the motion picture industry and an 8-ton X-ray machine to document the device. Their findings were unexpected. Before they took the X-ray, there were around 1,000 documented symbols. The X-ray revealed more than 2,000 additional symbols with partials of others, leading them to believe there were around 15,000 on the entire device.

What was once thought to be a mere lunar and solar eclipse calculator turned out to be a much more sophisticated device. This device could tell where planets were located, tell the day of the year, show the orbits of the planets and calculate eclipses. This device had somewhere around 60 different gears and even had Epicycles, gears on top of gears.

“As a work of craftsmanship, it is extraordinary,” Swedin said. “We had no idea the Greeks had that kind of technology.”

Edwin Stafford, a senior who classifies himself as a medievalist and a classicist, said, “When you mention ‘2,000-year-old’ and ‘computer’ in the same sentence, I pounce.” And he did, spending time both before and after the seminar in discussion with Ferro and Swedin.

The gears on the device were so small and so precise that they had to be made of bronze, which is a mixture of tin and copper. Some of the gear teeth were only about 1.5 millimeters.

“The fact that this device was preserved was simply a chance of luck,” Swedin said.

Ferro, who has done substantial research on the history of computing devices, said he is not sure if the Antikythera directly influenced computing as it is known today, but he is convinced Antikythera was the beginning of a new way of viewing the world as a mechanism, which certainly influenced the creation of mechanical devices.

Swedin mentioned two ideas about the Antikythera. First, he discussed how the Greeks and Romans were very close to the industrial revolution, which eventually occurred much later in Europe in the 1500s. Swedin said he believes that what was holding the Greeks and Romans back was not their technology or the ability to craft the devices, but the amount of slaves who performed their simple labors. Because of the great supply of slaves, they did not need the devices to aid in manual labor. In their era, the devices were merely curiosities.

Second, Swedin talked about the Greek and Roman idea that the heavens were geometric. These devices were a big influence on how they viewed the world. Antikythera helped them to view the world as a mechanism, which, as Swedin explained, is the idea that has since fueled the technology industry.