Jo Marchant is an award-winning science journalist and author of several popular science books including Decoding the Heavens: Solving the mystery of the world’s first computer and the New York Times bestseller Cure: A journey into the science of mind over body (both shortlisted for the Royal Society science books prize). She has a PhD in genetics, and has worked as a senior editor at New Scientist and at Nature.
In 1901, sponge divers in the Mediterranean recovered several corroded pieces of bronze from an ancient shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera. Scholars soon noticed inscriptions on their surfaces, as well as traces of gearwheels, dials and pointers. These fragments were the remains of a mysterious and sophisticated device, dubbed the “Antikythera mechanism”. It turns out to be one of the most impressive items that survives from the ancient world and unique in the historical record, an unexpected treasure that has proved the ancient Greeks were capable of far more than we ever thought, and changed ideas about the origins of our own machines. In this lecture, I’ll tell the story of the mechanism’s discovery and the century-long race to decipher its workings; discuss what it means for the history of technology; and reveal the most recent insights into who built it and why.