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EXOSUIT used in hunt for world’s oldest computer

ExosuitIn a mission through time Nuytco’s robotic Exosuit is set to dive on an ancient shipwreck in the Greek isles for an uncommon artifact called the ‘Antikythera mechanism’. Used for predicting astronomical events, the advanced mechanical calculator was developed in antiquity and is often characterized as the world’s oldest known analog computer. The hunt for it later this year is a case of high technology in search of its age old self.

The Exosuit will transport a scientist to depths of 400 feet (120m), and back through more than 2,000 years of history, to the remains of a first century BC shipwreck from which parts of the mechanism were recovered over 100 years ago. Chance discovery of the wreck by Greek sponge divers in the year 1900 produced a haul of superb Greek and Roman statuary and among other artifacts, the concreted calculator, but the price was high. During the deep salvage operations one diver died from decompression sickness and others suffered paralysis. 

The pressure resistant aluminum alloy Exosuit eliminates this risk to life and limb. Depth rated to 1,000 feet (305m), the ‘Exo’ hard suit provides a one atmosphere ‘shirtsleeve’ environment for the diver inside who can spend hours searching for the mechanism without any decompression concern (see story page 24). “It’s basically a wearable submarine,” says Phil Short, a diving specialist on the team set to go to Antikythera, the Greek island after which the mechanism is named. Past explorations of the deep wreck were brief, literally measured in minutes. The initial salvage effort more than a century ago using the copper hardhat gear of the day allowed bottom times of about five minutes, and when Jacques Cousteau’s team dived the wreck in 1976, their rebreather technology doubled that bottom time, but that still fell far short of a practical dive time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite these depth-related constraints, the archaeological treasures recovered at Antikythera are among the finest Greek and Roman artifacts yet found. In the years following its discovery, the ship was identified as Roman, and found to be laden with luxury items that included bronze and marble statues, glassware, ceramic objects, coins, jewelry and fragments of the strange calculating device. It wasn’t until decades later, in the 1950s, that scholars determined these metal pieces could be assembled into what is believed to be a sophisticated analogue computer-like apparatus linked to the early civilization’s interest in astronomy.

Brendan Foley, co-director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Deep Submergence Laboratory, which has been involved in Exosuit sea
trials, says the shipwreck has given up many treasures and still holds many secrets. “But for me,” he said, “the mechanism is what sets it apart. The questions it opens up about the history of science and technology are what fire my imagination.” 

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