In 1900, just off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera and at a depth of about 45 metres, a group of sponge divers discovered the wreck of a Roman cargo ship. Among the bronze and marble statues, pottery, and jewellery that were retrieved in the next months, there was also an artefact that would puzzle scientists for the next hundred years: the Antikythera mechanism.
At first, it was dismissed as just a lump of wood and metal, but when a gear was discovered it was recognized as an important find. Such a device should not have been possible because the mechanism had most likely been constructed in the second or first century BC, and the gap between this device and the next known mention of a geared mechanism was over a thousand years. A hundred years after its discovery it then became clear that it was not just any such a mechanism, but a clockwork computer that showed the changing positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets in the zodiac, the date, the phases of the Moon, the timing of eclipses and more. In short, it displayed the skies at any chosen moment in time.
In this book, Marchant describes basically everything that happenend in relation to the mechanism in the last hundred years, for instance, how it was discovered and retrieved from the ocean floor, how scientists dedicated years or even decades to solving its mysteries, and how the advancement of technology finally helped to lift the shroud. She looks back 2,000 years to explain the technology of the ancient Greeks as far as we know about it, which emphasizes the magnitude of the realization that they had already discovered the clockwork. So much knowledge from that time was lost or destroyed, and it stands to reason to wonder how much more advanced current technology could be if it wasn’t. Some of the speculation about who could have possibly built such a sophisticated device is especially riveting, as well as the pondering of its uses since it was apparently not a scientific instrument.
Overall, it is a comprehensive and very entertaining approach to the topic; it is part history lesson, part adventure novel, and part detective story. Although I think that some sections could have used more scientific detail and less human interest, and that more diagrams and photographs should have been included in order to allow for a better understanding of the individual discoveries, it is a well-written and fascinating book that manages to ask all the right questions.