Torch:U.S. Volume LXIV Summer 2015 - Page 9

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In 86 BC, a ship full of loot mysteriously drowned in the Mediterranean off the coast of Antikythera. The ship belonged to Sulla, one of the foremost Optimate leaders of the res publica. He had just pillaged the city of Athens in his campaign against Mithridates VI of Pontus.

In 1900 AD, Greek divers located the wreckage. Unbeknownst to scholars, this encrusted skeleton of the Roman navy held the first analog computer.

The Antikythera Mechanism was a computer in its purest form: a device for storing and processing data. Dating back to 100 BC, its primary function was to convert between the lunar and solar calendars used by the Babylonians and Egyptians, respectively. The Greeks developed this astronomical calculator by recognizing the Metonic Cycle, the pattern of a new moon happening on the same day every nineteen years.

“This would have been one of the first ‘big data’ projects,” said Dr. Phil Rossini, an aviation expert and ancient computing enthusiast. “The Greeks had to record the dates of moon and sun phases for many decades before they could recognize the complex patterns in the Metonic Cycle.”

This technology also advanced the Greeks’ ability to predict eclipses and schedule the Olympic Games.

What was initially thought to be a fossil of a steering wheel was cracked (figuratively) by X-ray radiography in the early 2000s. Inside is a system of interlocking gears with precise mathematical relationships.

Scholars found that the product of just three of these gears’ ratios equals 254/19, the exact number of lunar cycles in 19 solar cycles (i.e. years). The rest of the gears were believed to correct variations in the number of days in a Metonic month and the number of months in a Metonic year.

Modern scholars have teamed up with engineers to build working replicas of the Antikythera machine. Their work revealed that the gears can also predict the phases of the moon and sun on any given day and the timings of eclipses within a day or two of their actual occurrence.

Instead of programming it to do calculations or write messages, why would the Greeks develop a computer to predict the movements of the stars? For traders in the Mediterranean, being able to convert between lunar and solar calendars was as important as converting between currencies.

Ancient civilization adopted their calendars based on their cultural rhythms. The Egyptians used the solar calendar to forecast the annual flooding of the Nile, while the Babylonians opted for the lunar calendar to forecast the periodic rises of the Tigris and Euphrates.

More than a lump of corroded bronze and wood, the Antikythera Mechanism was the first in a series of computers that would lead to the technologies we can’t live without today.

“Nothing like [the Antikythera Mechanism] was around even when George Washington was president,” Dr. Rossini said.

In the 20th century, these mechanical computers were digitized and the first personal computer (PC) was sold in 1950. In recent decades, revolutions in computing size and speed have transformed the original PCs into today’s laptops, tablets, and smartphones. So next time you send an email or snap a selfie, you can thank the ancient Greeks.

But this historical revelation is also an important reminder to JCLers that the classics is an evolving field bleeding into blank textbook pages. Unlike the literature we study in the Latin classroom that has been dissected by centuries of scholars with exhaustive commentary, the Antikythera is an unsolved mystery. Organizations like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Falmouth, Massachusetts, continue to explore the wreckage and piece together the fragments, making discoveries as recently as last November.

Moreover, it represents a shift in ancient culture that we are facing in another form today: digitization. Before Antikythera technology, people would rely on priests and politicians to define their calendar. But, humans are fallible. Priests can be bribed to give false astrological readings, and politicians might add a few months to the calendar so they can return from a war in time for campaign season.

So when someone came along with an analog machine that would reliably track the lengths of months and years, it was no doubt a coveted product. But does a mathematical machine have the same touch as a priest’s reading? And is it better or worse at democratizing such information?

As the Torch:U.S. switches to an online-only format, these same questions lurk in JCLers’ minds.

“I will miss the feeling of having a paper copy of the Torch in my mail to read, ” Boston Latin Academy sponsor Ms. Janet Fillion said.

However, a survey of thirty MassJCLers revealed that 77% of them browse the Torch:U.S. online. And statistics from the digital Spring Torch:U.S. beta test show that 500% more time was spent on pages with digital content than on static pages.

Digitizing the Torch, like the Greeks did for their calendar, is strengthening the faith of readers, especially when its features are harnessed in the JCL’s best interest.

Source: Freeth, T., et al. "Decoding the Ancient Greek Astronomical Calculator Known as the Antikythera Mechanism." Nature 444.7119 (2006): 587-91. Web.

FEATURE · Torch:U.S. · Summer, 2015

Below: The larger fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism recovered from the shipwreck. The largest piece is about a foot tall.

Below: X-rays revealed gears in precise ratios in the Antikythera.