Thus was born the myth of Archimedes: the first great engineer in history

Thus was born the myth of Archimedes: the first great engineer in history

Considered one of the greatest scientists of Classical Antiquity, reality and myth are mixed in the figure of Archimedes. A journey through literature and history, from his theorems to the inventions that made him famous, reveals how his figure fits into the history of engineering.

Archimedes of Syracuse, painted here by José de Ribera in 1630, is considered one of the most important scientists of Classical Antiquity. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.



Prolific inventor, mechanical engineer and war strategist —as well as a pioneer of science— his life story could fill a great saga of television fiction. Archimedes (287 B.C. – 212 B.C.) lived most of his life in Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, which at that time belonged to Greece and would eventually succumb to the Roman siege during the Second Punic War. This is where Archimedes' life ended, and where his legend began, which has made him a mythical figure of science and of engineering.

This personage was already an enigma for those Roman historians who compiled his work decades after his death (Plutarch, Diodorus, Titus Livius...), so it is easy to understand that today it is difficult to distinguish myth from reality. What has come down to us regarding the figure of Archimedes is a mixture of direct information from his writings combined with references from great historians about his life and work.

Three manuscripts preserve the texts of Archimedes' original treatises in Greek. The third, a codex containing Archimedes Palimpsest, was sold in New York for $2 million at a Christie's auction in 1998. An article published in the journal The Mathematical Intelligencer explains the epic feat of Reviel Netz and William Noel, who deciphered the manuscript after it had been lost for several millennia and was in a complicated state of preservation. Nowadays it is available to everyone in digital format thanks to The Archimedes Palimpsest Project.

The Palimpsest of Archimedes, from the 10th century, contains the only existing known copies of The Method of Mechanical Theorems and On Floating Bodies. Credit:Walters Art Museum.

The unknown engineer

As an engineer, history attributes to him the invention of tools such as Archimedes' lever or screw —and of war machines such as the catapult, the heat ray or the Claw of Archimedes— but his written legacy makes no mention of these inventions. What is certain is that Archimedes was a man of science and also highly valued by the court of King Hieron II, to whom he was a close advisor and with whom he worked on military strategy. This could have been, according to some experts, one of the main motivations of Archimedes to promote his facet of engineer. In addition, practice was for him a way of making tangible what really fascinated him: the theory.

This is revealed in a letter he wrote to Eratosthenes of Cyrene, then librarian and director of the Alexandria Museum, where Archimedes had studied in his youth. In the 20th century, historian Johan Ludvig Heiberg deciphered the text in which Archimedes explained his method: he would explore through mechanics the mathematical relationship he wished to establish and would then look for its geometric demonstration. Experimentation and observation were thus the basis of his successful method, at a time when science was taking its first steps.

His achievements in different fields of knowledge are as brilliant as they are varied: he obtained a very exact approximation of the number Pi, developed the basis of naval architecture thanks to the Archimedes’ Principle, and formulated the law of the lever. Chris Rorres, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Drexel, organised a conference in New York in 2013 with the aim of deciphering with a group of historians which of the achievements attributed to the genius from Syracuse were feasible 23 centuries ago. That meeting discredited some inventions that could be considered too fanciful: the "death ray" (or heat ray) was completely discarded, as had already happened in 2010 on the American television program "MythBusters", when the then president of the United States, Barack Obama, requested scientific verification as to whether the legendary invention capable of burning the Roman fleet by concentrating the sun's rays through large reflective mirrors was actually feasible.

Some hypotheses point out that the famous Archimedes screw was already used in Egypt and that the scientist actually made an improvement on the design. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

From screw to weapons

As for Archimedes' famous screw, which allows water and other materials to be lifted with little effort and without damaging them, Rorres gathers evidence in his book Archimedes in the 21st Century that Archimedes might have seen these during his stay in Egypt and produced an improved version.  Roman engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who first recorded Archimedes' screw in his work De architectura, does not attribute its design to Archimedes or to any other author.

Although the passage of time makes it difficult to distinguish myth from reality, the history of science continues to delve into the figure of this enigmatic genius. What is certain is that his ingenuity earned him the respect even of his enemies. For the Roman general Marco Claudio Marcelo, who finally conquered Syracuse, the mathematician and his inventions were the reason why the siege of the city lasted almost 3 years. Thanks to his mathematical knowledge, Archimedes had developed a unique understanding of the properties of matter, so he had a privileged view on the possibility of using certain bodies as weapons. Thus, he took advantage of what he knew about weight and density in relation to the laws of physics to develop weapons as ingenious as they were devastating. Marcellus buried Archimedes with honours.

The specific circumstances of his death have also faded over the centuries. Despite the different versions of the story, many agree that it was his passion for mathematics that would cost him his life. Thomas Little Heath compiles in the book The Works of Archimedes, some of them: perhaps he was drawing in the sand to solve some mathematical enigma, or was manipulating some different tools, but the fact is that he was so absorbed in his ruminations that apparently he refused to follow the soldier who came to collect him. He died as he had lived, absorbed in mathematical contemplation. His tomb had a sphere and a cylinder carved into it, as Cicero described in his chronicles.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.


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