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Ancient Greek Computer Technology

Retired Article • Written by Alan Bellows

In 1900, Elias Stadiatos was diving near the Greek island of Antikythera searching for sea sponges when he encountered what appeared to be a pile of dead, naked women on the ocean floor. Distressed, he surfaced an informed others of his find, and a closer inspection was made of the area. Elias's "dead women" were in fact ancient statues lying in the midst of a Greek ship which had sunk there around 87 BC. The statues had been part of its luxurious cargo, which also included jewelry, pottery, fine furniture, and wine. The sponge divers brought up as many interesting objects as they could manage, producing an orgy of artifacts.

About two years later, on May 17, 1902, an archaeologist named Spyridon Stais was examining some of the pieces, and noticed a chunk of green rock which had a gear wheel embedded within it. This gear was the first evidence of an ancient Greek computer which would come to be known as the Antikythera mechanism. Technology in the early 1900s did not allow for peering into the rock further, but it was clear that this was the oldest gear-driven mechanism ever to be discovered.

It would be almost sixty years before a science historian at Yale University named Derek J. de Solla Price suggested that this might be one of the celestial-body tracking instruments described in several ancient Greek texts. Experts balked, as some are wont to do, because it was generally thought that such stories were fictional, and that the ancient Greeks lacked the practical skills and technology to construct such an intricate computing mechanism. Gamma ray imaging was employed in the early seventies, and its findings backed up the theory, but the new analysis was met with similar doubt. But more recently, several working replicas of the device have been made which demonstrate that such a clockwork device could have predicted the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and planets with quite a bit of accuracy.

From the Economist article:

The Antikythera mechanism, as it is now known, was originally housed in a wooden box about the size of a shoebox, with dials on the outside and a complex assembly of bronze gear wheels within. X-ray photographs of the fragments, in which around 30 separate gears can be distinguished, led the late Derek Price, a science historian at Yale University, to conclude that the device was an astronomical computer capable of predicting the positions of the sun and moon in the zodiac on any given date. A new analysis, though, suggests that the device was cleverer than Price thought, and reinforces the evidence for his theory of an ancient Greek tradition of complex mechanical technology.

Article on the Economist
Wikipedia entry

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 21 October 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows.
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12 Comments
MissMrs
Posted 23 October 2005 at 05:42 am

Why is it we never give ancient societies credit for being intelligent enough to invent and employ "complex mechanisms" such as a gear to track the stars? We always seem so startled that they could do this. But really, when you have lots of smarts but not quite the technology we have developed in the last 100-150 years, undoubtedly they would use their smarts on things they felt were important. Brilliant people existed back then too.


twisterjester
Posted 23 October 2005 at 01:00 pm

We have become arrogant, assuming that our current technology couldn't have been developed before, because we are so special and brilliant. The truth of the matter is that man as a species has been intelligent for millennia. We have evidence of extraordinary ancient civilizations, some achieving feats that still cannot fully be explained today. Think the pyramids of Giza. Think Macchu Piccu. The truth is that there have been brilliant men and women throughout history and they were no less inventive than we are today.


tmarie99
Posted 23 October 2005 at 01:30 pm

I agree with both the previous posters... I mean, we can't figure out how they built the pyramids, or Stonehenge... Why is it such a stretch to believe that the ancient Greeks had something we can't figure out?
Scientists can be so stupid sometimes.


jonr
Posted 24 October 2005 at 03:53 pm

Actually, we pretty much do know how the Egyptians built the pyramids. They started with a bottm layer, and then built dirt ramps up to where the next layer needed to start; repeat; repeat; repeat. Individual blocks of stone were moved using log rollers. Not nearly as complicated as it sounds, but required an enormous amount of labor. Which is why the ancient Egyptians had slaves. LOTS of slaves.

Chances are that Stonehenge was built much the same way, again using logs to roll stones.
The statuary on Easter Island were done this way, too, although you wouldn't think it possible by the size of the trees remaining on the island. For an interesting read, google "Easter's End" by Jared Diamond. It's a good lesson in more than the arrogance of thinking we're smarter than the ancients, but I won't spoil it.


Zoltan
Posted 24 October 2005 at 05:33 pm

The ramp theory is certainly one of the theories put forward to acc ount for the ability of the ancient Egyptians to build the Great Pyramid. But it is only one of at least a dozen that I am aware of. The problem is, it has no more evidentiary support than any of the others. To be sure, it has the beauty of a good theory: it is simple, it could be repeated if one was of a mind to build another great pyramid, and it is loveable; i.e., people are happy with it. But it is no more supported by evidence than my personal favorite, which has to do with the use of hot air balloons tied to the huge blocks of stone to provide, if not sufficient total lift capacity for the enormously massive blocks, at least a kind of neutral bouyancy that made them relatively easy to move. So far we have discovered no mention of the use baloons -- more's the pity -- by the Pharo's engineers; but neither is there any mention of ramps, even though there is extensive documentation of other Egyptian building techniques. But, oddly, there are many references to making things "float" in the air. By the way, there is no evidence to suggest that the pyramids were built by slave labor. Quite the contrary. They appear to have been built by eager volunteers. Let us not be too arrogant in our certainty. As Charles Fort suggested, science is merely ignorance surrounded by laughter.


JustAnotherName
Posted 28 October 2005 at 04:53 pm

I am MissMrs and I already forgot my password so now I will use this sign-on. Anyway, whatever tactic they employed to build the pyramids, it is still masterful that they fit the pieces so precisely. But again, they were the Michaelangelos of their time making their art with a purpose. Too bad their "religion" was a bit much (Pharo - A God?) And don't try to support it by saying you had a past life as an Egyptian Princess. My Aunt already stole that one. Anywho, too bad they didn't have the camera back then. I would have loved to have seen it finished with all that gold covering the Pyramids. So they say. Must have been in some ancient scrolls that they had been fitted with gold. Maybe it melted off in the sun and people just carted off gold sand. : ) Oh yea. Scavengers. Pillagers. Pirates? Well, who can say. Babylon was the next great World Power so they must have taken it. Let's see......Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, USA-UK. Seven.


sherashi
Posted 04 May 2006 at 02:59 pm

Ancient Egyptian slave labour is just another one of those factual errors that is never questioned. If you suggest they didn't have slaves to the general public then people think you are lying. From what we do have for evidence (the bible does not count) Egypt did have slaves but mostly just as household/palace servants. Labourers were actually unionized and treated fairly well because they would refuse to work if they weren't. And just as my own little rant connected to the slave issue....don't you think we would have found archaeological evidence or ANY evidence other than the bible if Exodus actually happened?


KJK::Hyperion
Posted 08 June 2006 at 01:37 pm

Come on, a pyramid isn't hard at all. They are the most stable shape a building could come in, and the most obvious (dig some dirt, make a pile: the shape you obtain is a pyramid or the Parthenon?). I seriously don't understand the fuss about pyramids. If so many unrelated civilizations came up with the idea of pyramids, maybe it's because the concept is pretty obvious and affordable. But nooo... they obviously have to be related somehow... but they ARE! they were all humans! When you were playing with Lego, did the Atlantidians enlighten you in your sleep with the knowledge that to make a higher stack of stuff you need a wider base?

MissMrs: it's not modern arrogance in this case. The Greeks said that of themselves. They wanted to be seen as pure thinkers. They explicitely held handiwork in contempt as a lower form of expression of human intelligence.


Mez
Posted 22 September 2006 at 09:20 am

A new analysis, though, suggests that the device was cleverer than Price thought, and reinforces the evidence for his theory of an ancient Greek tradition of complex mechanical technology.

So what does this new analysis actually suggest that the device did/can do?


Tink
Posted 25 October 2006 at 09:42 pm

Could it have been a sextant? A navigational device used on ships. And hey, who's to say that if they had little gears, then what is so far fetched as to believe that they hadn't big ones? Big enough to operate pullys, and hoists to lift large blocks of stone? Now the question is what happened to those (big) gears? Maybe they were reforged into household items, or weapons. Hum..DI!


MacAvity
Posted 21 March 2010 at 07:44 pm

Since this has evidently turned into a debate about the pyramids,

Zoltan said: "The ramp theory is certainly one of the theories put forward to account for the ability of the ancient Egyptians to build the Great Pyramid. But it is only one of at least a dozen that I am aware of. The problem is, it has no more evidentiary support than any of the others. To be sure, it has the beauty of a good theory: it is simple, it could be repeated if one was of a mind to build another great pyramid, and it is loveable; i.e., people are happy with it. But it is no more supported by evidence than my personal favorite, which has to do with the use of hot air balloons tied to the huge blocks of stone to provide, if not sufficient total lift capacity for the enormously massive blocks, at least a kind of neutral bouyancy that made them relatively easy to move. So far we have discovered no mention of the use baloons — more’s the pity — by the Pharo’s engineers; but neither is there any mention of ramps, even though there is extensive documentation of other Egyptian building techniques. But, oddly, there are many references to making things “float” in the air. By the way, there is no evidence to suggest that the pyramids were built by slave labor. Quite the contrary. They appear to have been built by eager volunteers. Let us not be too arrogant in our certainty. As Charles Fort suggested, science is merely ignorance surrounded by laughter."

There is also another theory: a highly plausible one gaining recognition among reputable scientists, albeit slowly. From the Times article:

"The Ancient Egyptians built their great Pyramids by pouring concrete into blocks high on the site rather than hauling up giant stones, according to a new Franco-American study.

The research, by materials scientists from national institutions, adds fuel to a theory that the pharaohs’ craftsmen had enough skill and materials at hand to cast the two-tonne limestone blocks that dress the Cheops and other Pyramids.

Despite mounting support from scientists, Egyptologists have rejected the concrete claim, first made in the late 1970s by Joseph Davidovits, a French chemist.

The stones, say the historians and archeologists, were all carved from nearby quarries, heaved up huge ramps and set in place by armies of workers. Some dissenters say that levers or pulleys were used, even though the wheel had not been invented at that time.

Until recently it was hard for geologists to distinguish between natural limestone and the kind that would have been made by reconstituting liquefied lime.

But according to Professor Gilles Hug, of the French National Aerospace Research Agency (Onera), and Professor Michel Barsoum, of Drexel University in Philadelphia, the covering of the great Pyramids at Giza consists of two types of stone: one from the quarries and one man-made.

“There’s no way around it. The chemistry is well and truly different,” Professor Hug told Science et Vie magazine. Their study is being published this month in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

The pair used X-rays, a plasma torch and electron microscopes to compare small fragments from pyramids with stone from the Toura and Maadi quarries.

They found “traces of a rapid chemical reaction which did not allow natural crystalisation . . . The reaction would be inexplicable if the stones were quarried, but perfectly comprehensible if one accepts that they were cast like concrete.”

The pair believe that the concrete method was used only for the stones on the higher levels of the Pyramids. There are some 2.5 million stone blocks on the Cheops Pyramid. The 10-tonne granite blocks at their heart were also natural, they say. The professors agree with the “Davidovits theory” that soft limestone was quarried on the damp south side of the Giza Plateau. This was then dissolved in large, Nile-fed pools until it became a watery slurry.

Lime from fireplace ash and salt were mixed in with it. The water evaporated, leaving a moist, clay-like mixture. This wet “concrete” would have been carried to the site and packed into wooden moulds where it would set hard in a few days. Mr Davidovits and his team at the Geopolymer Institute at Saint-Quentin tested the method recently, producing a large block of concrete limestone in ten days.

New support for their case came from Guy Demortier, a materials scientist at Namur University in Belgium. Originally a sceptic, he told the French magazine that a decade of study had made him a convert: “The three majestic Pyramids of Cheops, Khephren and Mykerinos are well and truly made from concrete stones.”

The concrete theorists also point out differences in density of the pyramid stones, which have a higher mass near the bottom and bubbles near the top, like old-style cement blocks.

Opponents of the theory dispute the scientific evidence. They also say that the diverse shapes of the stones show that moulds were not used. They add that a huge amount of limestone chalk and burnt wood would have been needed to make the concrete, while the Egyptians had the manpower to hoist all the natural stone they wanted.

The concrete theorists say that they will be unable to prove their theory conclusively until the Egyptian authorities give them access to substantial samples."

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article656117.ece

Actually I'm surprised there hasn't already been a Damn Interesting article on this hypothesis - theory? - or maybe there has and I just haven't seen it.


Chitach
Posted 13 August 2010 at 02:47 am

Here is a translation of this article in Russian: http://chitach.ru/posts/9/


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