An ancient astronomical calculator made at the end of the 2nd century B.C. was amazingly accurate and more complex than any instrument for the next 1,000 years, scientists said Wednesday. The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest known device to contain an intricate set of gear wheels. It was retrieved in 1901 from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera but until now what it was used for has been a mystery.
Although the remains are fragmented in 82 brass pieces, scientists from Britain, Greece and the United States have reconstructed a model of it using high-resolution X-ray tomography. They believe their findings could force a rethink of the technological potential of the ancient Greeks. "It could be described as the first known calculator," said Mike Edmunds, a professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University in Wales.
The calculator could add, multiply, divide and subtract. It was also able to align the number of lunar months with years and display where the sun and the moon were in the zodiac. Francois Charette, of the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, said the findings, reported in the journal Nature, provide a wealth of data for future research.
Edmunds described the instrument as unique, saying there is nothing like it in the history of astronomy. "What was not quite so apparent before was quite how beautifully designed this was," he said. "That beauty of design in this mechanical thing forces you to say 'Well gosh, if they can do that, what else could they do?'"