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Ancient astronomical calculator had Olympic run

Experts have deciphered the word "Olympia" on the Antikythera Mechanism and discovered that one of its dials kept track of the four-year Olympics cycle.

Antikythera Mechanism fragment
This image shows a fragment of the Antikythera Mechanism. The right side of the image has the enhancement turned on. For more Antikythera pictures, click on the image. Hewlett-Packard

For all the technology that will go into orchestrating the Beijing Olympics this year, a new report in British science journal Nature is reminding the world where it all began: with a 2,100-year-old gadget that tracked dates of the ancient Olympic games.

Known as the Antikythera Mechanism, the astronomical calculator was discovered by divers in 1901 as one of the artifacts collected from a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, Greece. With its 3,000 characters and 30 gears, scientists have come to conclude that the intricate and once technologically advanced device calculated moon, sun, and planet locations for specific dates. But most recently, the Associated Press reported Wednesday, experts have deciphered the word "Olympia" on the bronze device and discovered that one of its dials kept track of the four-year cycle of the Greek Olympic games.

A researcher told British paper The Daily Telegraph that the team was surprised to find that such a technologically advanced mechanism kept track of an event that could be tracked relatively easily compared with such cosmic events as eclipses. The dial, he said, served not only mathematical purposes, but also represented the harmony between technology and culture.

Deciphering the artifact has taken many years and progressed with the help of Hewlett-Packard Labs' imaging technology. The company joined the project in 2006 with its patented reflectance imaging. The HP researchers took photos of the Antikythera Mechanism from a fixed point and from 50 different light sources arranged over the object. When the images were stitched together, they produced a clearer picture of the writing on the device.

The research team also reported that it discovered the names of other Greek games and possible links to the town of Greek mathematician Archimedes on the gizmo, which is no longer whole or functioning.

But who says you can't teach a (very) old gadget new tricks?