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Archimedes: A mathematician ahead of his time


The Syracusia was the largest ship ever built at the time of its construction, around 240 BCE.

By Jeanne Cannavo

Every time you take a plane, watch a ship sail in the ocean, ride a bike or use a lever, it may not occur to you that the inspiration and design for these inventions, and many other modern machines we use today, were imagined, and conceived by a brilliant mathematician and inventor who lived centuries ago.

Archimedes of Syracuse was a great scientist of antiquity. He was born in Syracuse (at that time a Greek City State) on the island of Sicily c. 287 BCE and recognized as one the most famous mathematicians and inventors in ancient Greece.

At the age of 18, he traveled to Egypt to study at the great library of Alexandria. One of the first things he saw on his arrival was a lighthouse, also called the Pharos of Alexandria. It was acclaimed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This technological triumph, thought to be over 350 feet tall, is the archetype of all lighthouses since. In Alexandria, he became friends with Eratosthenes of Cyrene, head of the library and credited as the person who first calculated the circumference of the earth. He also became friends with another intellectual, Conon of Samos, who was a well-respected astronomer and mathematician.

After returning to Syracuse, he worked for King Hiero II, who may have been related, as an engineer and problem-solver. One of his most important discoveries was the relation between the surface and volume of a sphere and its circumscribing cylinder. He is known for his formulation of a hydrostatic principle (known as Archimedes’ principle) and a device for raising water used, known as the Archimedes screw, a method still used today. The screw was a cylinder enclosing a twisted blade that rotated upwards when turned by a crank. He is also credited with inventing the odometer during the First Punic War. The invention was described as a cart with a gear mechanism that dropped a ball into a container after each mile traveled.

One of his most interesting discoveries was his theory on floating bodies. This principle established that any floating object displaces its own weight of the fluid it is in. For this he became known as the father of hydrostatics. Historians believe he arrived at this conclusion when he was determining how he could float a large ship. The ship, designed by Archimedes and built by Archias of Corinth on the orders of Hieron II, was named Syrakosia or Syracusia. At the time it was the largest transport ever built. She was too big for any port in Sicily, and the ship only sailed from Syracuse to Alexandria, Egypt.

The historian Moschion of Phaselis wrote that the Syracusia could carry a cargo of 1,600 to 1,800 tons and a capacity of 1,942 passengers. Guarded by more than two hundred soldiers, she was also fitted with a catapult.

Little is known about the outside appearance of the ship, but the Greek writer Athenaeus wrote that the top deck, which was wider than the rest of the ship, was supported by beautifully crafted wooden Atlases instead of simply wooden columns. This deck featured eight towers, equipped with two archers and four fully armed men. On the bow of the ship was a raised platform for fighting, on top of which was a giant catapult. Twenty rows of oars protruded from the lower level and there was reportedly a promenade lined with flowers and tents for use by the passengers.

Designs of the ship would show it to be comparable to the Titanic from the early 1900s. There were various recreational spaces aboard, including a garden and an indoor bathroom with hot water. The lower levels of the ship were for the crew and the soldiers, while the upper levels were for the use of passengers. Athenaeus also claimed the ship was beautifully decorated using materials such as ivory and marble, while public spaces were paved with mosaics depicting the entire story of the Iliad. The ship was also equipped with a library, a drawing room, and a gymnasium for use by the passengers.

Upon its completion, the Syracusia was sent to Egypt by King Hieron as a gift to the ruler Ptolemy. When it was time to put her in the water, Archimedes amazed King Hieron once again. He was able to launch the Syracusia single-handedly by using a system of pulleys. His block and tackle pulley system were another of his ingenious inventions which we still use today.

The building of the ship was not the great mathematician’s only contribution to defense systems. Archimedes became known for his battlefield defense weapons. Sicily was frequently attacked by “foreign” invaders. In 215 BCE, the Roman navy and army attacked Syracuse and, to help citizens defend the city, Archimedes designed various war machines to fight back. Some of these titanic machines seem to have been stone throwers or large crossbows, but ancient historians tell of other inventions. These include the notorious Archimedes Claw, which used a crane and grappling hook to reach down and grab Roman galleys, eventually capsizing them.

His other idea was using mirrors or polished shields to focus sunlight into a point and set fire to wooden ships, an invention commonly referred to as the Archimedes Death Ray. This theory has been tested by students at MIT and they could not produce the referenced results so the reports that this was used as a war machine may have been an embellishment.

In all, Archimedes wrote nine treatises on his assorted studies. Archimedes died around 212/211 BCE during the siege of Syracuse, killed by a Roman soldier despite orders that he should not be harmed.

Centuries later he would influence other great scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. Da Vinci repeatedly expressed admiration for Archimedes and attributed his invention Architonnerre to Archimedes. Galileo called him “superhuman” and “my master.”

If you ever get a chance to visit Syracuse, there is a well curated museum on the island of Ortigia (connected by bridges to the city) where you can view and experience firsthand some of his many theories and designs.

Archimedes spent his life in the pursuit of knowledge. His ideas led to the advancement of society and the creation of numerous modern-day amenities.


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