Ancient Greece: Archimedes The Mathematician

Learn who, in Ancient Greece, was the great mathematician. Archimedes, whose theories and inventions designed great engines of war, and other ingenious devices.

There can be little doubt that Archimedes was a natural genius, blessed with a talent before his time. Born in Syracuse, 287BC, he soon became interested in mathematics. His father was an astronomer, so the family had a background of good working memory.

Archimedes inventions were many, but he took great joy not in engineering, rather geometry - pure theorizing. His most famous discovery, known as Archimedes principle or hydrostatics, occurred, it is said, whilst he was climbing into a bath. He noticed water pouring out of the sides and reasoned that "˜a body immersed in fluid loses weight equal to that of the fluid that is displaced.'

On a visit to Egypt, Archimedes invented the hydraulic screw, often referred to as Archimedes screw. With this device he was able to raise water from a low to a higher level. He made friend with many mathematicians in Alexandria, and when back home in Sicily, used to send them documentation of his findings. Things might have turned a little sour when several shameless Alexandrians began claiming the findings as their own. Craftily though, Archimedes began to send the odd bit of information that he had already worked out as being an impossible concept, and the lying mathematicians were shown up.

Two other inventions, the compound pulley and the lever, were designed to pull great weights and lift heavy objects respectively. King Hieron of Syracuse was mightily impressed with them when they were demonstrated to him, and asked Archimedes if he would begin designing them as engines of war. Reluctantly he agreed; he was essentially a pacifist and the machines he had built were only intended as toys for amusement.

Great catapults were built to defend Syracuse from the invading Romans, who were led by Marcellus. It is debatable whether or not some of these machines existed. For example, it is rumoured that a machine was built that could pull whole boats out of the water and throw them against the rocks, but this may just be the stuff of myth.

Archimedes was eventually killed by a Roman soldier, during the Second Punic War, in 212 BC. Apparently at the time he didn't notice the presence of the soldier, so absorbed was he in a theoretical problem. He merely glanced up and asked the Roman not to disturb his diagrams, upon which he was killed by means of a sword. Several of his books, such as "˜On floating bodies' and "˜On the sphere and the cylinder', have survived until this day. He will always be regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians ever.

© High Speed Ventures 2011