The world is preparing to turn its eyes to Beijing for the Summer Olympics, a fortnight of sporting competition that pits the best athletes against one another. The Games start on the somewhat ominous date 8/8/08 — but that’s something the ancient Greeks could’ve predicted as far back as the end of the 2nd century, B.C., using a mechanical brass calculator to predict solar and lunar eclipses and likely set the dates for the Olympic games.
The calculator, dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism, was discovered in 1901 at the site of a shipwreck off a Greek Island with the same name. The breakthrough in determining the mechanism’s true purpose, however, has come only recently with advances in modern technology.
Using three-dimension, X-ray technology, the researchers working with the device were recently able to decode tiny inscriptions buried inside the fragmented brass pieces, Reuters reports. The Antikythera Mechanism is comprised of bronze gearwheels, dials and inscriptions.
The connection between the lunar and solar eclipses was an important part of setting the date of the ancient Olympics. The beginning of the ancient games marked the beginning of what the Greeks called “The Olympiad,” a four-year time span that began on the full moon closest to the summer solstice.
As researches began to unravel the astronomical function of the Antikythera Mechanism, x-ray technology dropped another clue in their lap. Amongst the inscriptions on the ancient computer were the names “Nemea” and “Olympia” — both of which were sites that hosted the ancient Olympics.
Like a well thrown shot-put, the pieces began to fall into place for researchers.
“It really surprised us to discover that it also showed the four-year cycle of ancient Greek games, including the Olympic Games,” Tony Freeth, a researcher at the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project who worked on the study, told Reuters.
The Antikythera Mechanism wasn’t done surprising the people studying it either. When it was originally discovered, at the site of a shipwreck in 1901, it was found with other items from the Eastern Mediterranean. This led researches to believe that ancient brass computer originated in that region.
But as researches employed the technology that allowed them to read the inscriptions on the device, they found that the names of the months used were of Corinthian origin — indicating the Mechanism found its origins on the other side of the Greek world, most likely Corfu or Sicily, in the Northwest part of the country.
The technology used in the Antikythera Mechanism was so advanced for its time that it wouldn’t be seen again in the Western world until the invention of clocks in medieval cathedrals.