Become a fan of Slashdot on Facebook

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror

Mystery of Ancient Calculator Finally Cracked 241

Posted by kdawson
from the Curta-had-nothing-on-the-ancients dept.
jcaruso writes, "It's been more than 100 years since the discovery of the 2,000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism, but researchers are only now figuring out how it works." From the article: "Since its discovery in 1902, the Antikythera Mechanism — with its intricate and baffling system of about 30 geared wheels — has been an enigma... During the last 50 years, researchers have identified various astronomical and calendar functions, including gears that mimic the movement of the sun and moon. But it has taken some of the most advanced technology of the 21st century to decipher during the past year the most advanced technology of the 1st century B.C."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Mystery of Ancient Calculator Finally Cracked

Comments Filter:
  • by LiquidCoooled (634315) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @06:51PM (#16968652) Homepage Journal
    Did it run Linux?
  • by LearnToSpell (694184) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @06:55PM (#16968692) Homepage
    Remember folks, always document your calculators.

    • Re:Physical Perl (Score:5, Informative)

      by Thornae (53316) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:13PM (#16968832)
      Remember folks, always document your calculators

      They did.
      From the article:
      '... X-rays exposed writing on surfaces mashed together in the Mechanism, and never before seen... He declines to be specific about what the writing says. "But it was basically an instruction manual on using the mechanism, and what its purpose was," he says.'

      • by LearnToSpell (694184) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:56PM (#16969160) Homepage
        Remember folks, always read the article.
      • "He declines to be specific about what the writing says."

        WTF ... so they figure all this out, and then they keep the writing secret? What's up with that.
        • by Petrushka (815171) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @08:44PM (#16969502)
          they keep the writing secret? What's up with that.

          Because it's kind of hard to read, even if you know Greek. Quite a lot of work needs to be done to get the text transcribed fully, even if parts of it are easy to read. Have you looked at the third image in the slide show? Could you make an accurate transcription of the text shown?

          FWIW, I can read Greek, but all I can make out is some references to a "square showing a given" something, some numbers, and something about moving some bits of the mechanism but not others. The third line's got some words in it but I can't fit them together without context.

          • Also, second to last line, "as the whole (something) is divided", and last line "elliptic"? I can't make anything else out, and most of the text is missing :/
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Anonymous Coward
            "square showing a given"

            So you can read greek can you ? Hardly. It says "Insert coin here".
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by eraserewind (446891)
            but all I can make out is some references to a "square showing a given" something, some numbers, and something about moving some bits of the mechanism but not others.
            That's what it's meant to say! Some ancient maintenance engineer's guarantee of a job for life.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 23, 2006 @10:27PM (#16970228)
          It's perfectly easy to understand. There are two possibilities.

          1. There's writing on it, but it can't be read with certainty. Instead of making guesses to its contents, the researchers are leaving their speculation to its purpose, which can be more easily deduced. This can be because of:

          1a. They actually can't read enough of it to gather the content of the message. (i.e. "Turn the ... as the wheel ... place the ... will appear at ... Made in Mexico")

          1b. They have a translation of some sort, but aren't sure that it is correct, and are waiting for confirmation.

          2. The researchers made the annoucement subject to a non-disclosure agreement. These agreements are fairly common when making announcements prior to the publication of an academic article. You can make you're annoucement of your findings, but can give specifics about your findings until the article has been published. Just wait until the article is published, and then read the translation yourself.
        • by NoMaster (142776) on Friday November 24, 2006 @12:53AM (#16970944) Homepage Journal
          WTF ... so they figure all this out, and then they keep the writing secret? What's up with that.
          Because the bit they have recovered and translated so far reads "Disassembly or reverse-engineering for any purpose (including, but not limited to, for the purposes of interoperability or future compatibility) is prohibited by this licence".

          Basically, they've found the EULA. They're worried the BSA will sue them under the PMCA (Pre-Millenium Copyright Act)...

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Sam Nitzberg (242911)
        It's a Cookbook !!!!

        Ummmmmm..... nevermind.....

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by ajs318 (655362)
          "All the runes that you will find were written by the ancient giants of Gorfland. They are no use to you since most are simply cooking recipies" -- what game was that from?

          Actually there is still some controversy regarding one of the oldest cookbooks ever found. There is a recipe which was once thought to be for flapjacks. However, another school of thought states that it is in fact a shortbread recipe. The debate is over the meaning of a phrase which was translated as "crushed grains". The original d
    • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @08:30PM (#16969404)
      Abacus: millions still in use today.

      Slide rules: very few still in use today, but they were very important from 1620's (when they were invented) until the 1970/1980s -- 350 years.

      Now, a calculator older than 5 years is a historical curiosity (although I still use a 15-year old calculator on a day-to-day basis).

      What we're seeing is a shortened lifetime for calculators, software, etc. which probably makes documentation less important (excpet for historical curiosity). You would not realisticly expect any software / device you design now to be in use 350 or 2000 years from now.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by xQx (5744)
        Yeah, and that's exactly the excuse we're going to hear over and over in 7,994 years when billions of man-hours are being spent on fixing the Y10K bug.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by triffid_98 (899609)
        You forgot to say "unless it was written in COBOL".

        You would not realisticly expect any software / device you design now to be in use 350 or 2000 years from now
        .
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Macthorpe (960048)
      In other news, the EU fined the creators of the Antikythera Mechanism several hundred million euros today.

      A spokesman stated "You can't program it. It's taken people 50 years to find out how it works. They had a monopoly on ancient calculating mechanisms and there was no documentation, so without proper interoperability we cannot morally allow them to continue anciently calculating in the European market without some form of punishment."
  • by Mish (50810) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @06:58PM (#16968714)
    But it has taken some of the most advanced technology of the 21st century to decipher during the past year the most advanced technology of the 1st century B.C."
    Maybe in 2000 years we'll have the technology to decode that sentence!
  • Just goes to show... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:01PM (#16968736)
    Don't throw out the instructions; archaeologists from the 40th century might need them.

    On the serious side, though... How much of our stuff will be unusable only 200 years from now?
  • slownewsday (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Toby The Economist (811138) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:02PM (#16968746)
    Absolutely nothing new in this article, except that the latest team are going to be releasing their findings soon. Basically, it's a page filler, some entertainment, not news at all.

    Really, we need a new word, for news which isn't functional information, but just amusing/entertaining.

    I wish they'd bloody well get round to publishing the full translation of the text, though!

    • Re:slownewsday (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Cadallin (863437) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:06PM (#16968776)
      Yeah, I was really disappointed. I've heard about this device before, and more detailed specifics about it would be very interesting, but this article is just a fluff piece.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by v1 (525388)
        Don't you just love it when someone posts an article that basically say "hey we have something really interesting to tell you but we're not telling."? Usually being a tease is considered mean.
      • by dangitman (862676)
        Yeah, I was really disappointed. I've heard about this device before, and more detailed specifics about it would be very interesting, but this article is just a fluff piece.

        Slashdot?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kfg (145172)
      The entire story in a nutshell:

      "No comment."

      Film next week.

      Really, we need a new word, for news which isn't functional information, but just amusing/entertaining.

      "Rupert."

      KFG
    • Some call it "infotainment."
    • by rbochan (827946)
      Really, we need a new word, for news which isn't functional information, but just amusing/entertaining.


      There is one [fark.com]

    • by GWBasic (900357)
      Really, we need a new word, for news which isn't functional information, but just amusing/entertaining.

      Filler

      I actually enjoyed reading the article as I only recently became aware of the device. BT named a song after it on his new album, This Binary Universe [amazon.com].

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Ravatar (891374)
      The term you're looking for is "Digg".
    • by Random Data (538955) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @09:10PM (#16969746)
      Really, we need a new word, for news which isn't functional information, but just amusing/entertaining.


      Fox News?

    • Really, we need a new word, for news which isn't functional information, but just amusing/entertaining.

      Amews?
    • by dangitman (862676)
      Really, we need a new word, for news which isn't functional information, but just amusing/entertaining.

      Slashdot?

  • by PsyQo (1020321)
    Some archeologists suggest that the people who used this calculator, actually tried to build a Beowulf cluster out of these, but were unable to because Beowulf wasn't born yet.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Just makes me think. If it's this hard to figure out what a geared mechanism does, how hard is it going to be for a hypethetical future generation discovering a computer to figure out what the heck it was for?

      If we all get wiped out by a comet or something and humanity has to start from scratch would we eventually end up using silicon? Or would we come up with a biological solution (like the human brain)? It's cool to think about.

      Maybe we've already dug up things that are more advanced than what we ha
  • by Nefarious Wheel (628136) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:17PM (#16968856) Journal
    ...thus, by tracking back to which epicycles were extant in the cosmos at that time, we were able to pinpoint the moment of the crime (a piracy, perhaps?).

    Actually this story is a little old, people have had the Antikythera device scoped out for a couple of years now. It's a sort of geared astrolabe using an epicyclic model (an astronomical paradigm adopted in Ptolomy's ptime) and the parts inside the corroded find were derived by some good ol'fashioned NMI scanning.

    An astrolabe is basically a clock -- an analogue computer that correlates time, star position and latitude. Look 'em up -- they're beautiful instruments and very logically constructed. Each point indicates a star, the off-centre circles (al'mucanthers) are the projections of the celestial latitudes from the polar axis (think of a bunch of hoops on one spindle of a Tower of Hanoi model, then crank the spindle off the perpendicular by a few degrees, to give you an idea of the projection. Light source on top, your shadow rings are the al'mucanthers). Move the star pointer to one of those circles, then read the index off the rim of the device (the Mater). Because of their simplicity and elegance (the mathematical model, not the construction!) they were used up until Columbus' time. If the Antikythera device had been a better predictor, we might well have seen more of them. And a lot more gears. The only thing we still use from the development of the astrolabe today is the flat head screw, seen on one model in 1565.

    • by hughk (248126)
      and how to build a complex epicyclic movement with ancient Greek tech? Sure, they had gears, but this is rather more of a mechanism. Our (so-called modern) astrolabes were quite crude by comparison, as were our clocks until the 16th Century or later.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Cimon Avaro (1022609)

      Actually this story is a little old, people have had the Antikythera device scoped out for a couple of years now. It's a sort of geared astrolabe using an epicyclic model (an astronomical paradigm adopted in Ptolomy's ptime) and the parts inside the corroded find were derived by some good ol'fashioned NMI scanning.

      I think you misread the article. It didn't say they used an epicyclic model but an epicyclic mechanism (instead of differential gearing). That is, they weren't specifically using an epicyclic ma

  • by ultracool (883965) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:17PM (#16968860)
    They should have given it to SG1. Dr. Jackson would have figured it out in no time, and they would have used to save the Earth from a far more technologically advanced enemy.
  • by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:30PM (#16968970) Homepage Journal
    This just goes to show why documentation is so important. Kids, when you want your CoolWare 1.3.37 still to be in use 2000 years from now...document it!
    • by jd (1658)
      ...they were the ancestors of C programmers, as it was indeed documented but only in obscure comments embedded in the code.
  • wikipedia (Score:5, Informative)

    by laggist (784355) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:32PM (#16968994)
    heh.. lots of nice pics and write-up here [wikipedia.org]
  • by nick_davison (217681) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @07:44PM (#16969092)
    But it has taken some of the most advanced technology of the 21st century to decipher during the past year the most advanced technology of the 1st century B.C.

    To pull out the old quote, "It is twice as difficult to debug a program as to write it. Therefore, if you put all of your creativity and effort into writing the program, you are not smart enough to debug it."

    Without any information even about what it's supposed to do, beyond being a series of gears, without knowing if it's even a fragment of a larger whole - or even knowing if it actually worked for the intended process (or was the ancient equivalent of a buggy program), that makes for quite a challenge.

    I'm guessing, in the future, a massively advanced civilization that came across the ones and zeroes of Internet Explorer, without the O.S., without info about HTTP, without Windows or a computer based off that comical silicon technology they've only found fragments of, they wouldn't be able to figure it out either.
  • Does anyone else need convincing that comments might not be a waste of time?
    • by Petrushka (815171)
      comments might not be a waste of time

      To put it in CS language, surviving technology from the ancient world tends to be more binaries than source code. With some notable, and correspondingly important, exceptions (such as Vitruvius).

  • Properly document your hardware!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Dunbal (464142)
      Properly document your hardware!

            They did, only no one could overstand the joyful tongueage it was scribated in. Press green button marked RED to activating your unit and with disdain you must...
  • If it took them this long to reverse-engineer an ancient calculator with 30 gears, imagine how long it's gonna take them to reverse engineer that crashed alien ship in Area 51.

    No wonder they're keeping everyone out- they're embarrassed.
  • by pbhj (607776) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @08:44PM (#16969492) Homepage Journal
    I find it amusing.

    This is a heliocentric astrolabe style device from about 80BC; an advance from geocentric designs. Yet most people on /. appear to espouse the view that everyone before the middle-ages thought the earth was flat. Now granted - the rotation of planets around a common star doesn't necessarily imply the understanding of rotation of a non-flat planet but as soon as you consider other planets rising and setting you're going to start getting some major clues ... really, we've not developed that much.

    I guess at 1:43am I'm easily amused!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by TapeCutter (624760)
      Yep, there are many people who were taught that "Columbus proved the Earth was round", however this guy [wikipedia.org] worked out it's circumference about 2000yrs before Columbus was born. You'd think all the ancient art depicting the god Atlas carrying a globe would have given the Pope a fucking clue! Perhaps this means that by the year 3500 the church will have accepted evolution.
      • by Rostin (691447) on Friday November 24, 2006 @12:13AM (#16970782)
        You'd think all the ancient art depicting the god Atlas carrying a globe would have given the Pope a fucking clue!

        Huh? Which pope and incident are you referring to? If you are thinking of Galileo, that wasn't about the shape of the earth, it was loosely about heliocentrism. I say "loosely" because if you do a little research, you'll discover that the popularly accepted version of the story has been highly exaggerated and simplifed to force it into the "religion vs science" mold.

        Perhaps this means that by the year 3500 the church will have accepted evolution.

        Maybe you should read this [wikipedia.org].
        • by TapeCutter (624760) on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:18AM (#16972432) Journal
          Damm it, what a screw-up! I already knew from reading Galileo's biography that basically he got in trouble with the pope because the pope interpreted his book as a personal insult, and yet I still managed to paraphrase the "religious dogma" story I was taught ~40yrs ago! Worst still I got the subject matter completely wrong. I also accept that only a fringe element of the church still doubt evolution.

          In short, I stand corrected on both the pope and the evolution comment, and am willing to serve as an example of just how powerfull myths can be.
  • Would ancient timepieces suffer from overflow? Did they just stick a zero in front of the year back then?


    (Granted their calendar would register '1st century BC' at somewhere between year 3000 and year 4000, at a random guess.)

  • Doesn't this thing remind anyone of the countless ancient artifacts we've seen in movies that are expressly designed to summon some evil force (the devil, elder gods, pokemon, etc.) to the Earth to destroy or enslave mankind forever? Should we really be playing around with this thing?
  • Link to Working Unit (Score:4, Interesting)

    by EEPROMS (889169) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @09:23PM (#16969808)
    Pictures and Images to a working unit can be found here [grand-illusions.com]
  • by The_Dougster (308194) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @09:49PM (#16969954) Homepage
    The reports of strange lights emanating from the lab were merely energy discharges from the material under the effects of the x-ray analysis, which is quite normal actually. Unfounded rumors of strange demonic figures running amok in the complex were likewise nothing more than a mischievous prank by a few of the overworked scientists who took a joke a bit too far. The security forces stationed around the building are merely there to keep pesky reporters from spoiling next-week's release. Any sounds which appear to be gunfire are simply sonic gas bubbles popping from out of the high tech equipment. So everything is completely under control, no need to worry.
  • Most Advanced? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JoeCommodore (567479) <larry@portcommodore.com> on Thursday November 23, 2006 @10:20PM (#16970186) Homepage

    ...most advanced technology of the 1st century B.C.

    Given that we know only as much about such ancient times by the encrusted ruins we find, how do we know that this was thier most advanced?? Ive read about the roman factories [waterhistory.org] recently that gives me the impression we really don't know much more than what most og us have seen in Spartacus.

    • by cnerd2025 (903423)
      I don't consider us to be so much more advanced than the ancient peoples. In fact, I think the Romans were about as advanced as society was about 300 years ago; in some ways, the Romans were more advanced than those who lived 300 years ago. Romans had running water, central heating, and even concrete. Remember, the Romans also invented the republic, making the "pure" Greek (direct democracy) system much more efficient while still running under the will of the people. I honestly believe that had the Germ
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by NoMaster (142776)
        All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

  • by strength_of_10_men (967050) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @11:10PM (#16970488)
    BESURETODRINKYOUROVALTINE
  • I wonder ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by multimediavt (965608) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @11:43PM (#16970656)
    ... had the Library of Alexandria not been sacked, would we still have the instruction booklet for this thingy?
  • So does this mean that two millennia from now that humans, or the robots that take over from them, will spend a century figuring out CALC.EXE?
  • Would that not be a clear point of previous art?

    Also I thought that reverese engineering was heavily frowned upon.
  • OK, so I'm in pedantic mode here but shouldn't it be "last century B.C." instead of "1st century B.C."?

    After all, "1st century B.C." is the century the world started. Tricky to get that half right to say the least. And if we take the starting of the universe into consideration it sort of gets hopeles.

It isn't easy being the parent of a six-year-old. However, it's a pretty small price to pay for having somebody around the house who understands computers.

Working...