01 Jun Is the computer really a modern day invention after all?
When Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist was asked in her recent interview in Wired magazine, why she took on writing her new biography titled: The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer, she said:
“I was asked by an editor to consider writing something about an American inventor. I asked him if he knew who invented the computer. He said he didn’t. In that case, I told him, I should write a book about John Vincent Atanasoff.”
According to the article, in 1937 Atanasoff came up with four new principles: electronic logic circuits that would function by turning on and off; binary enumeration; the use of capacitors, which were needed as a kind of memory; and digital operations, which used counting to perform calculations.
Atanasoff is said to have conceived several key principles of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, through a sudden insight after a long nighttime drive during the winter of 1937-38. Wikipedia
Dr. Atanasoff and a graduate student Clifford Berry built the first digital computer in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State University.
Of course, Ms. Smiley mentions, Konrad Zuse, in Berlin, who built one of the first modern day computers in Nazi ruled Germany, Alan Turing, the great British mathematician who worked on the Colossus, a great code-breaking machine during Churchill’s command and one of the more well-known general-purpose electronic computers, the ENIAC, financed by the United States Army during World War II and designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania.
But, Frederic Golden in his Time magazine article, Who Built The First Computer?, concluded:
“So who did invent the computer? Novel as it may have been, ABC could not be reprogrammed, did not handle large numbers well and never became fully operational. By contrast, the reprogrammable ENIAC did initial calculations for the H-bomb, kept flashing away for nearly a decade and led to a host of more sophisticated successors. Take your pick.”
But, is the computer really a modern-day invention after all?
In the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece are the remains of an ancient computer that were salvaged from a shipwreck off the tiny island of Antikythera in 1901.
It took half a century for a British science historian Derek J. de Solla Price to start investigating the mechanism and with the prompting of Arthur C. Clarke, Scientific American published a lead article titled, An Ancient Greek Computer, in June of 1959.
The Antikythera Mechanism
In the 2008, New York Times article titled, Discovering How Greeks Computed in 100 B.C., John Noble Wilford states:
“Only now, applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, have experts been able to decipher inscriptions and reconstruct functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism. The latest research has revealed details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar.”
In the article, Antikythera Mechanism: World’s oldest computer?, Eben Harrell states:
The team believes the Antikythera Mechanism may be the world’s oldest computer, used by the Greeks to predict the motion of the planets.
The researchers say the device indicates a technical sophistication that would not be replicated for millennia and may also be based on principles of a heliocentric, or sun-centered, universe – a view of the cosmos that was not accepted by astronomers until the Renaissance.
The Greek and British scientists used three-dimensional X-ray technology to make visible inscriptions that have gone unseen for 2,000 years.
According to the official website, The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project:
“Without a doubt it tells us that both Ancient Greek astronomy and mathematics were very advanced. This has to be placed in perspective as part of Greek astronomy comes after the long scientific tradition of the Babylonians, who built up a remarkable collection of astronomical data and discovered the repetitive patterns in that data. The Greeks placed these data into a new perspective.
It is thought by some that it was probably made by someone of the Hipparchos school. Hipparchos (c.190 BC ? c.120 BC) was a Greek, astronomer, geographer, and mathematician of the Hellenistic period.
He was the first Greek to develop quantitative and accurate models for the motion of the Sun and Moon. For this he made use of the observations and knowledge accumulated over centuries by the Ancient Babylonians.”
The YouTube video, from the scientific journal Nature shows just how fascinating this mechanism is.
Was it dropped off by aliens or evidence of time travel?
Well, many other people must have contacted the The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project with the same amount of “too-much-science-fiction” awe-inspired doubt, because in the FAQ’s section of the website, they answer the alien and time-travel question with the following response:
“No. While the Antikythera Mechanism is the only surviving mechanism of its kind that we know about, there is written evidence of similar (but not the same) mechanisms existing at the same time, and more importantly references to their makers. Furthermore, the Mechanism fits within a very long historical astronomical context, and perhaps represents the climax of ancient Greek astronomy.”
We consider the computer an invention particular to our modern day world, but it appears the anicents had their computers as well.
Wonder if Ms. Smiley might consider Hipparchos and the Ancient Babylonians for her next biography.