Details of a 2,000-year-old Moon "computer" unveiled

The delicate workings at the heart of a 2000-year-old analogue computer have been revealed by scientists

Details of the newest research on the ancient astronomical calculator called the Antikythera Mechanism have been published online by Nature magazine in advance of Thursday's international conference in Athens.

The 2,000-year-old device is a complex of hand-cut bronze gears and dials, inscribed with numbers and astronomical terms. It was found a century ago by accident in a wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera and has baffled scientists for much of the time since then.

Researchers in recent years have clarified the device was used to calculate and display the relative positions of sun and moon, and possibly the five then-known planets. But many mysteries remained.

Now there are fewer remaining. The latest research, aided by advanced imaging software and 3-D X-ray computed tomography, confirms some previous insights by researcher Michael Wright and expands on them. The mechanism is revealed as a sophisticated mechanical calculator that displayed a variety of astronomical events and periods, including the sun and moon moving through the zodiac, accurately predicted solar eclipses, and apparently displayed movements of the known planets.

Nature has a general story about the mechanism and its historical context, coupled with material available only via paid subscription or institutional license: diagrams, a detailed technical paper from the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project and a technical summary by science historian Francoise Charette. The latter two documents were made available to Network World.

Roughly the size of shoebox, the mechanism shows two concentric scales, the inner one showing the Greek Zodiac with 360 divisions, the outer, moveable scale is the Egyptian 12-month calendar, widely use then in Greek astronomy. The Egyptian names for the months are written in Greek letters. Pointers show the relative positions of the sun and move, and a device showing the moon's phase was probably attached to the moon pointer. On the back of the device are two dials, each based on spiral design, whose pointers show time based on two astronomical cycles.

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