Friday, May 11, 2007

It's A Computer, And It's 2000 Years Old

A truly mindblowing story from the New Yorker unveils some of the secrets of the world's most ancient computer. A short summary intro :
A hundred years ago, sponge divers off the coast of Greece found, amidst the wreckage of an ancient ship, "a shoebox-size lump of bronze, which appeared to have a wooden exterior. Inside... [was] what looked like a bronze dial. Researchers also noticed precisely cut triangular gear teeth of different sizes. The thing looked like some sort of mechanical clock. But this was impossible, because scientifically precise gearing wasn't believed to have been widely used until the fourteenth century — fourteen hundred years after the ship went down."
Investigators in the first years of 1900 couldn't work out what it was. The best theory settled on was that it was some sort of astrolab, known to have existed in the 8th century because Muslim explorers used it to position their ships by the stars and find latitude, as well as locating the direction of Mecca and working out prayer times.

Investigators theorised it was most likely to be an astrolab. They didn't think it could be a computer of some kind, because, weirdly enough, computers hadn't been invented in the early 1900s, so how could they recognise an ancient version of something that didn't exist?

It gets stranger still. But here's a few observations from the New Yorker piece worth quoting in full :
Looking back over the first fifty years of research on the Mechanism, one is struck by the reluctance of modern investigators to credit the ancients with technological skill. The Greeks are thought to have possessed crude wooden gears, which were used to lift heavy building materials, haul up water, and hoist anchors, but historians do not generally credit them with possessing scientifically precise gears—gears cut from metal and arranged into complex “gear trains” capable of carrying motion from one driveshaft to another. Paul Keyser, a software developer at I.B.M. and the author of “Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era,” told me recently, “Those scholars who study the history of science tend to focus on science beginning with Copernicus and Galileo and Harvey, and often go so far as to assert that no such thing existed before.” It’s almost as if we wished to reserve advanced technological accomplishment exclusively for ourselves. Our civilization, while too late to make the fundamental discoveries that the Greeks made in the sciences—Euclidean geometry, trigonometry, and the law of the lever, to name a few—has excelled at using those discoveries to make machines. These are the product and proof of our unique genius, and we’re reluctant to share our glory with previous civilizations.

In fact, there is evidence that earlier civilizations were much more technically adept than we imagine they were. As Peter James and Nick Thorpe point out in “Ancient Inventions,” published in 1994, some ancient civilizations were aware of natural electric phenomena and the invisible powers of magnetism (though neither concept was understood). The Greeks had a tradition of great inventors, beginning with Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287-212 B.C.), who, in addition to his famous planetarium, is believed to have invented a terrible clawed device made up of large hooks, submerged in the sea, and attached by a cable to a terrestrial hoist; the device was capable of lifting the bow of a fully loaded warship into the air and smashing it down on the water—the Greeks reportedly used the weapon during the Roman siege of Syracuse around 212 B.C. Philon of Byzantium (who lived around 200 B.C.) made a spring-driven catapult. Heron of Alexandria (who lived around the first century A.D.) was the most ingenious inventor of all. He described the basic principles of steam power, and is said to have invented a steam-powered device in which escaping steam caused a sphere with two nozzles to rotate. He also made a mechanical slot machine, a water-powered organ, and machinery for temples and theatres, including automatic swinging doors. He is perhaps best remembered for his automatons—simulations of animals and men, cleverly engineered to sing, blow trumpets, and dance, among other lifelike actions.

Maybe we had to think of ancient people as less inventive and less technologically achieved than us, in our modern eras, so we could think of ourselves as so much smarter and far more advanced?

The conclusion of this excellent story should be read for yourself, here.

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