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Ancient advantage

We tend to think of computers as a modern invention, electronic devices with roots in the mechanical engines invented by the likes of Babbage in the 19th century. But a programme on BBC Four last night highlighted that computing has a much longer history stretching all the way back to ancient Greece.

The Antikythera mechanism is a clockwork calculator dating back to the first century BC that was designed to predict the movement of the celestial bodies. Watching the programme, I found it difficult to decide what was more amazing: the machine itself, which combined centuries of knowledge of astronomy and mathematics with intricate engineering that some put on a par with Victorian clocks; or the techniques employed by modern researchers to discover how the mechanism worked and what it was used for by studying the calcified fragments rescued from the bottom of the sea 100 years ago

Thinking about this incredible device sparked a discussion in The Engineer office about not only the longevity of technology but about the fragile nature of knowledge itself. So much of our most advanced engineering today is found in electronics that would unlikely survive entombment underwater for 2,000 years, while the information it stores is locked up in bits and bytes that could easily be lost, even if the machine itself remained in tact.

And yet a technology (albeit a much simpler one) created when people still believed the Earth was the centre of the universe can still impart its knowledge to us, two millennia after it was built and then lost.

While the artefacts of the ancient world had to make it through conquests, dark ages and being shunted around on ships that could easily succumb to stormy weather, it’s easy to assume that our own technological achievements will last forever. You can picture visitors to a museum in the year 4,000 staring in wonder at the simplistic design of an iPhone.

But at a time when the latest technological gadgets are viewed as disposable, this is by no means guaranteed. A lifetime of research saved on a computer without a backup can be destroyed if a hard disk fails, reflecting how more tangible ways of storing information have their benefits too. And who’s to say a future global conflict won’t send human progress spiralling backwards for decades or even centuries?

However, there is one unquestionable advantage to the electronic nature of our modern system of storing information. The internet has opened up the sharing and preservation of knowledge on a global scale, achieving more than any invention that came before it, from the alphabet to the printing press.

The Antikythera mechanism itself may have survived in some form but its impact could have been so much greater had the ancient Greeks’ knowledge of this first computer not been restricted to a small number of people. Imagine a world where the Romans or the early Muslim world had widespread use of mechanical clocks, calendars and calculators. Perhaps iPhones might have already become museum pieces thanks to such a leg-up.

Speculation of parallel worlds aside, this awareness of the importance of both preserving and sharing knowledge feeds into the debate going on today about access to scientific journals and whether publishers should make them freely available on the internet. Individuals can make huge strides in technology but how much more can society achieve if its knowledge is open to all?

The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Computer is available to watch on iPlayer.

Readers' comments (9)

  • The creator of the internet Tim Berners-Lee might have wanted us to have it for free, but your suggestion that all information is published on the web for all to see questions how we value intelectual ownership, would inventors be expected to freely publish how their inventions work? I think not!

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  • I don't think I did suggest that all information should be published for free. I merely raised the question how much more would a greater sharing of knowledge (with the specific example of scientific journals) allow us to achieve.

  • It was an amazing programme but it also highlighted what incredible vandals the Romans were. They destroyed pretty nearly everything before them and we can only be grateful that Byzantium and the Arab world (we presume) preserved some of the knowledge.

    But it was no real surprise to anyone who has studied classical geometry - Euclid is all around us. The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two.

    Sadly I don't think this is in the current A level syllabus, which seems to be more concerned with applied mathematics.

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  • Yes, a good programme by the Beeb about the Antikythera mechanism - still available on iPlayer if you are interested!
    I hope the BBC make this available, even at a price, as it would be a great resource for schools, drawing as it does on archeology, mathematics, mechanics and astronomy.
    Picking up Paul Searle's point - wasn't this the point of the patent process? (Make the information available, but protecting the inventor.) OK, so there are faults with the system as it stands, but surely it's not beyond the wit of mankind to improve the way the system works, and make it fit for purpose.

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  • We've added a link to the programme on iPlayer.

  • The problem is that genius and vision are not neccessarily interlinked.

    It took 200 years of mechanical timepieces being in the public view/ownership before Mr Babbage had his euruka moment and invented the mechanical adding machine.

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  • Sympathy to Alan Turing then?

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  • I too was enthralled by the programme: These men (and women) of science and technology -like us, their modern descendants- were masters of their universe. They did not have 'patents' or learned societies or Universities to measure and record and 'hold' and restrict their efforts: they did have that wonderful inventiveness and freedom of spirit that made them stand on the shoulders of giants -even if they were themselves such!

    What a testimony to the power of the human state when it is free and unfettered by convention, the past and the power of an administration.

    I salute our ancestors: theirs is a noble past.
    Mike B

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  • Having recently left industry I would wish to make some observations.
    First what usually changes is how solutions are implemented, the problems themselves rarely change.
    Development comes from looking at problems from a new angle.
    Currently little realisation exists of the need to "explore" the problem and "play" with possible suboptimal solutions to help determine the optimal solution.
    Time and Corporate authorities today believe the solution appears as a direct result of academic qualification only without trial and error it does not. That is why we are losing capabilty and so many engineers have lost patience with large organisations and government.
    Far better to share your concept for a new form of propulsion with China or the US who will at least use the idea than here where every excuse will be given to drive you to the margins.

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  • I am reading a history of the Lunar Society. Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and others freely shared their ideas and enthusiasms with enormous benefit to society and themselves.
    During WWll computer knowledge from Bletchley Park was shared with Allies such as the USA. Again we all benefitted.

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  • Can we let this one run on for a while.... It's quite a powerful lever on the state of things today?

    Being able to predict an eclipse was a powerful psy weapon, esp. in days of belief in multiple gods. Archimedes, probably, almost certainly, had the data from several hundreds, even thousands of years of astronomical observation.

    Given the timescale of human evolution we have not advanced dramatically from those of 2000 years ago... our IQ curves must overlap well. So I don't believe that this "computer" remarkable as it is, was all that outstanding a feat in human endeavour... it just looks fantastic from the standpoint of our own expectations.... We just don't get history taught in that sort of frame. ..."It wasn't the dancing dog that was astounding... it was the fact that it did it at all!"

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