Mathematician, Physicist, Engineer, Inventor, Astronomer (c.287 BC – c.212 BC)
“Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth”. These were Archimedes’ spoken words when he discovered the mathematical principles of the lever. Archimedes’ discoveries where so groundbreaking that, had they not been lost for so many years, he would have moved the Earth toward the future long time ago. The world wouldn’t have been the same as it is today.
Born in the Greek colony Syracuse, Archimedes expressed his mathematical talent from a very young age. It was when the Golden Age of mathematics had reached its peak when Archimedes made his contributions. In the field of engineering, Archimedes invented the hydraulic endless screw, a mechanism for pumping water with a small distance in height still used today to transport fluids. He also invented the windlass, a device consisting of co-operating worm gears and gearwheels inside a box used for the elevation or the drawing of heavy objects with minimal manpower. He was eventually hired by the king of Syracuse, who was so amazed by his genius that he declared that everything Archimedes said, it had to be executed. Under his reign, Archimedes would combine knowledge and practice from mathematics, physics, architecture and hydraulics to construct his hometown’s defense systems. Namely, the “iron hand”, a defense war machine consisting of a grappling hook based on a rotating platform. When a ship approached, the hook would catch the ship and, following a series of mechanisms, elevate it and then release it, thus crushing against the water or rocks. Another invention was the stone throwing crane, which was used to face Roman ships by throwing stones. In addition, Archimedes invented the steam cannon and used mirrors to burn the ships of the Romans from afar, using the sunlight. The machines were so effective that even when a simple stick emerged from the walls of Syracuse, the Romans retreated in panic. In spite of Archimedes’ frightening machines, he was also the inventor of games. He created the ostomachion, a puzzle game widely played in antiquity.
Archimedes’ love, however, was in the field of mathematics. He invented the method of checking the purity of gold while in his bathtub, was the first to prove that π=3,14 by the polygonal approach and computed the volume of the sphere using the known volumes of the cone and the cylinder. This he considered as his greatest discovery and asked that it be inscribed on his gravestone. He is the father of calculus, a branch of mathematics which deals with change and which was not developed until the 17th century. Archimedes set the foundations of this branch more than 2000 years ago by using very complex mathematics in his head when he was concocting a way to determine the volume of the sphere. He imagined cutting the shapes into an infinite number of slices and using them in balancing the scale to achieve his goal. This method of infinite slicing and summation is used today widespread in nearly all sciences, from calculating the movement of planets to the flight path of a spacecraft. Archimedes’ contributions were great in number and importance but they exceed the scope of this page for their complexity.
In the beginning of the 20th century was discovered a book which contained works of Archimedes thought to have been lost forever. The book became known as the Palimpsest of Archimedes and deciphering it proved to be a very difficult task. Archimedes’ words lay under the words of a medieval prayer book, which was written over Archimedes’ original text. The original manuscripts were scrapped, rotated ninety-degrees and then refolded to make further double sheets, on which the Euchologion was written. On deciphering the ancient text, scientists discovered that Archimedes was closer to our age than was to his own. The Palimpsest contained seven treatises: The Equilibrium of Planes, Spiral Lines, The Measurement of the Circle, Sphere and Cylinder, The Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion. These treatises contained information that had the Palimpsest not been lost for so many years, the world would be a very different place today. One of them, The Method of Mechanical Theorems is unique in its kind. He did not just write the proofs of his theorems; he revealed the way he thought, the methods and the techniques he used to solve his mathematical problems. For the first time, it was as if delving inside Archimedes’ mind.
As of today, the entire Palimpsest has been deciphered. Scientists have acknowledged the fact that Archimedes not only made the first steps in calculus, but he developed it to an unimaginable depth, providing one of the most powerful tools of mathematics to humanity. Everything science uses today is a result of one man’s discoveries. If the Palimpsest had not been lost for more than a millennium, mathematics today would have been in a much higher level and since mathematics is the common language to all sciences, they as well would have been very different. Scientists believe that we could have been to Mars or have flown to the moon many years ago. Today’s humanity owes everything to the man who moved the Earth.
- Cor Bric. ARCHIMEDES Forgotten Genius Documentary. YouTube. 15 April, 2015. Web. 29 December, 2015.
- “Archimedes”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas, I. Athens, 1946. Print.
- Kotsanas, Kostas. Ancient Greek Technology The inventions of the ancient Greeks. Pyrgos: Kostas Kotsanas, 2013. Print.