PC Ancestor Under the Sea

 

To say that an archaeological discovery is "technologically advanced by ancient Greek standards" would seem to imply simplicity rather than sophistication.

But earlier this week, a team of British, Greek and U.S. researchers identified a set of corroded bronze gears that suggest Ptolemy and his pals may have been sporting something more like a Rolex than a sundial.

The device, known today as the Antikythera mechanism, has been acknowledged as the world's earliest existing computer, possibly dating back to the first century B.C.

The process of dating the relic hasn't been easy, and for decades, scientists dismissed the mechanism as being developed far more recently.

In 1960, when physicist Derek de Solla Price suggested that ancient Greeks, not 20th century Americans, developed the ancestor of the modern personal computer, he was widely dismissed in scientific circles. Now, the Greeks' innovation is finally being recognized.

Sunken Treasure

The unearthing of the Antikythera mechanism sounds more like the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie than an archaeological expedition, but this modern-day epic is the real thing.

A century ago, divers off the coast of southern Greece discovered the hidden treasure in a shipwreck. Among the corroded ruins, they found more than 30 bronze gears on the ocean floor, preserved but encased in layers of rust that had built up over 2,000 years.

Physicist Price became intrigued by the device when he moved to the United States from London and became a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Price was not the first to analyze the Antikythera mechanism -- but like so many others inspired by its mystery, it became his obsession. His youngest son, Mark, recalled the hours his father spent working with cardboard models trying to reconstruct the device.

"My whole life, I remember him tinkering, and it was like one of those math puzzles you couldn't quite solve," Mark de Solla Price said. "I remember him at the dining room table trying to think of what it could be and, 'Is there another piece I'm missing?'"

In 1974, after nearly 10 years of searching for the missing piece to the ancient puzzle, Price found what he thought was the answer. Using crude X-ray technology, he was able to look inside the wall of rust and identify inscriptions written in ancient Greek that epigraphers pinpointed to the first century B.C.

George Keremedjiev, director of the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Mont., said that because the device exhibited the basic mechanical functions of today's electronic computers, many were skeptical of Price's findings.

"It is a radically revolutionary device that represents the sophistication of early Greek mathematics to a level that nobody expected," said Keremedjiev. "Professor Price tried very hard to promote this as such, but it wasn't until this week that the data was fully accepted."

Divine Symmetry

The most recent findings were released by a team of researchers who, like Price, were infatuated with the mysterious object.

Mike Edmunds, professor of astrophysics at the University of Cardiff in Wales, headed up the multinational group of scientists. His team's study was very much in the spirit of Price's work, but the current team had the benefit of new X-ray technology that didn't exist during Price's time.

"It's a divine symmetry," Edmunds said. "We're using the highest tech to investigate the highest tech known from the ancient world."

In his work on the Antikythera mechanism, Price battled critics who called him a heretic for presenting extreme theories but persisted that his research would one day be validated. Price's son recalled the frustration his father expressed nearing his death in 1983.

"I remember when my father got to the end of his life and was looking back at all of his work and what he was famous for," he said. "And he was so frustrated that his really big accomplishment was practically invisible -- and that was his work on the Antikythera mechanism."

The Legacy

While Edmunds and his team are receiving most of the credit for their recent discovery, Antikythera mechanism followers like Keremedjiev said Price's legacy will always be strongly linked to the mechanism.

"He was the first to raise a lot of eyebrows," Keremedjiev said.

As a fellow scientist, Edmunds thinks Price would be amazed at what the new findings revealed.

"I think he'd be delighted to see just how much more this mechanism is capable of," Edmunds said, "particularly that it predicts eclipses and displays the motion of the moon. It really is wonderful."

For Price's family, years of persistence have finally paid off. His son said the recent attention surrounding the Antikythera mechanism has validated his father's lifelong dedication.

"He had such perseverance and determination that even the most scholarly minds in the world saying that on this one item he was a crackpot and crazy, he felt passionately about it," he said. "And I really think that it's opened up our view of where technology comes from in a whole new light."