Another mystery about the ancient ‘Antikythera mechanism’ may have been solved

The 'calibration date' of the mysterious 2,000-year-old device - the world's oldest computer - has been fixed, according to new research.
Photo: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI / AFP via Getty Images (left),

Voulgaris et al (right

ABSTRACT breaks down thoughtful scientific research, future technology, new discoveries and major breakthroughs.

The Antikythera mechanism, an incredible 2,000-year-old artifact that has gained fame as the first known analog computer, has thrilled the imagination of both the public and experts since it was restored after an ancient Mediterranean shipwreck more than a century ago.

Over the decades, scientists have solved the mysteries behind this beautiful object, which used a sophisticated system of gears to keep track of cultural events, such as the Olympics, and to predict the movements of celestial bodies along the Saros cycle, an 18-year period that is characterized by lunar and solar eclipses.

Recent studies have revealed dazzling digital reconstructions of the mechanism and maintained its intricate internal functions, although much of the artifact eroded away or was lost during its long burial under the sea. Some experts have even speculated that the mechanism was designed or invented by Archimedes, the famous Syracuse polymat who lived in the 3rd century BC.

Now a team led by Aristeidis Voulgaris, a researcher based at the Thessaloniki Directorate of Culture and Tourism in Greece, has unveiled yet another new chapter in the history of this ancient computer. Voulgaris and his colleagues believe that they have set the “initial calibration date” for the mechanism – meaning the time at which the entire system is referentially built – to 22 and 23 December 178 BC. a recently published study on the preprint server arXiv.

“The special design, the very large number of parts and the complex construction of the Antikythera mechanism led to the conclusion that it was used to measure / calculate the time presented the exported results / calculations via its pointers and scales,” said Voulgaris’ team in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed. “It is obvious that the manufacturer of the mechanism designed / constructed its creation and engraved the specific Saros eclipse sequence events to a specific epoch / initial date.”

In fact, the Saros cycle is explicitly built into the design of the Antikythera mechanism in the form of a spiral disk that predicts lunar and solar eclipses. Researchers have tried to drive the clock back in time before, with a previous study identify an eclipse noted by the artifact that took place on May 12, 205 BC.

Voulgaris and his colleagues arrived at a later date for a few reasons, including the location of the new moon phase in the mechanism. They interpret the position of this phase to mean that the Saros cycle would begin with an annular solar eclipse, a celestial event that occurs when the Moon is furthest from Earth. As a result of this distance, the Moon does not completely block the light of the Sun, causing an effect known as “fire”.

To test their assumption, the team underwent annular solar eclipses that took place across centuries of ancient Greek history. In particular, they looked for eclipses that coincided with other significant events that could characterize a date as a compelling measure of the mechanism.

Ultimately, scientists settled on the annular eclipse that adorned the sky on December 22, 178 BC, because it contained “a rare coincidence of astronomical events,” according to the study. The eclipse occurred one day before the winter solstice, which was a start date for many calendars at this time, and it also corresponded to the Sun crossing into the zodiac sign of Capricorn.

Voulgaris and his colleagues note that the Winter Solstice is a prominent reference to the mechanism, suggesting that it was an important date for the creator or creators of the artifact. They also point out that the same winter dates marked “the celebration of the religious festival in Isia started in Egypt and Hellenistic Greece”, a “unique coincidence” that distinguishes this time as “an ideal, functional and representative start date, to calibrate the initial position of the mechanism pointers, ā€¯according to the study.

The new study has potentially identified an important reference point for the operation of the Antikythera mechanism, though it will require more research to confirm the team’s hypothesis and the many other open questions about this confusing machine and its creators.

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