Saturday, 25 August 2012

A little computing

You might find it surprising - as you read this post on your favourite tablet, smart phone or laptop - that the idea for computers isn't a particularly knew one. Sure, the room-sized IBM card readers of the 1960s or the mechanical calculators from the 19th-century don't sit well with our current concept of a PC, but they were computers all the same, and as it turns out, the Romans knew a thing or to about generating computer data too. In fact, the Roman era saw the invention of the first handheld smart devices. Meet the Antikythere Mechanism...

The world's oldest computer

A modern recreation of
the Roman laptop

Recovered from a Roman shipwreck by Greek sponge divers in 1900 off the island of Antikythera, this device dates from 100-150BC and is the most complex machine ever found from the Roman era. It consists of 37 finely honed bronze gearwheels attached to various pointers representing the planets, the moon and sun. The machine uses a differential gear - previously believed invented in the 16th-century - and features a degree of miniaturisation and complexity unmatched until the 18th-century. The machine was used to path the various heavenly bodies through the zodiac and predict eclipses years in advance. Essentially the user could dial in individual or multiple variables such as a date, a month, a planetary or lunar position - after which rotating the machine by hand it would calculate the zodiac for a day almost anytime in the future. And the thing is, this is just a lucky find from the bottom of the sea, we can only imagine how much more complex Roman calculators and computers might have been. Still, I guess they didn't have facebook.