What do you think of when you hear the name Archimedes ? A ship floating
on the sea ? Great war machines protecting
ancient Syracuse ? Water screws irrigating
the desert ? Burning mirrors
setting fire to Roman warships? Spheres, cylinders, circles, spheroids,
conoids, spirals ? Perhaps a field of cattle or a universe full of sand
? A lever to " move
the earth.' These were all things that Archimedes considered during
was an ancient Greek mathematician and inventor born in Syracuse on the
island of Sicily. His birth date is estimated to be 287 B.C. by the fact
that John Tzetzes, a twelfth-century Byzantine historian, stated that he
died at the age of 75 during the sack of Syracuse in 212 B. C. 1
Archimedes was the son of Pheidias, an astronomer known for his investigations
into the sizes and distances of the sun and the moon. It was also said
by Plutarch that Archimedes was related to Hieron, King of Syracuse.
It is known that Archimedes spent some of his life in Alexandria, the
center of scientific activity during his era. It was in Alexandria that
Ptolemy I Soter (died 283 B.C.) invited a circle of philosophers and literary
men from Greece to study. He founded the "Museum" and "Library" an academy
where arts and sciences were cultivated. Scholars from Greece, Babylonia,
and Rome gathered to study under the professors of the "Museum"
Among the sciences cultivated in Alexandria were geometry, algebra,
trigonometry, astronomy, astrology, geography, surveying, mechanics, and
alchemy. The Alexandrians were generally specialists straying away from
the old Greek philosophy that "all learning" is province 2.
One of the first of the famous Alexandrian scholars was Euclid with
his Elements of Geometry and it is suspected that while Archimedes was
in Alexandria he studied with the pupils of Euclid. It is also assumed
that while in Alexandria Archimedes became friends with the Conon of Samos
and with Eratosthenes. It was to Conon that he sent his discoveries before
publication, and after the death of Conon to Dositheus of Pelusium, the
friend and pupil of Conon. Through Eratosthenes Archimedes introduced the
Cattle Problem to the mathematicians of Alexandria, and it was for Eratosthenes
that Archimedes wrote the Method 3.
Upon his return to Syracuse from Egypt, Archimedes devoted his life
to the study of mathematics. He felt that his mechanical inventions, which
were in fact what provided him with his fame, were â€œmerely
the diversions of a geometer at play". In Plutarch's words, "he possessed
so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific
knowledge that , though these inventions had obtained for him the renown
of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him
any written work on such subjects, but regarding as ignoble and sordid
the business of mechanics and every sort of art which is directed to use
and profit." 4
Because of this belief, Archimedes wrote only on strictly mathematical
subjects, with the exception of one work, On Sphere Making. It is the assertion
of Pappus that this work is a description of the construction of a devise
composed of concentric glass spheres, moved by water power, representing
the apparent motions of the planets, moon, sun, and perhaps the constellations.
It was said by Cicero that Marcellus took as booty from the sack of Syracuse
an instrument of this type. 5
It seems that it was the devotion to Hieron that induced Archimedes
to divert his mathematical studies to his engineering skills. There are
many "stories" of Archimedes' achievements in this field that are difficult
to substantiate but many indicate that the inventions were created at Hieron's
request. A well published story by Vitruvius is that of Hieron's desire
to know if all the gold he had given to a goldsmith to create a crown was
actually used instead of being substituted with an amount of silver.
The story says that the problem was presented to Archimedes causing
considerable puzzlement. While pondering the problem he visited a public
bath and noticed that the water in the tub rose in proportion to the amount
that he immersed his body into it. This indicated a solution to the problem
because Archimedes observed that by noting the difference in overflow when
the crown and equal weights of gold or silver were immersed he would be
able to distinguish if the crown were of pure gold.
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Archimedes The Life and Work of Archimedes