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As it's radioactive, the levels of carbon-14 in the material decreases as it ages but the amount of the stable carbon-12 doesn't change.
Therefore by looking at the ratio of carbon-12 and radioactive carbon-14 we can date the material.
Sue - So if you had for example a bone that you wanted to analyse, where would it actually go?
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The way it does that is by particle acceleration, by beam bending the particles so that they can be separated by magnetic forces.
The problem that we have though is that only a tiny amount of that carbon is carbon-14. That's why we need such a large machine, to be able to separate out all the interfering particles that aren't carbon 14.
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Dave - In the late 1940s a Chemist called Willard Libby, who originally worked on uranium during the Manhattan project, developed a method of dating material with a biological origin.