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Archimedes — More than just a Screw

If looks alone determined intellect, Archimedes may have risen to great heights based solely on his stately appearance.

Sculptures and paintings depict a wise and contemplative face framed by an unruly white beard, sweeping forehead, and nearly hairless scalp.

Though the venerable tinkerer and problem solver isn’t as well-known as some other ancient sages, he’s credited with a number of impressive technological advances, many of which are still used today. 

When Archimedes was born near the end of the 3rd century BC, the Sicilian city of Syracuse was a thriving center for trade, science, and the arts.   

As the gifted and perpetually curious son of a prominent local stargazer and mathematician, he was encouraged to pursue his interests early on, but surprisingly little is known about his childhood years. 

It’s alleged that his family was related to King Hiero II, who reigned from 270 to 215 BC.

Though these claims are subject to disagreement, they would explain his close relationship with the king in later years. 

Gleaning all he could from local teachers long before his fellow students, Archimedes set out on a journey of discovery to the famed Egyptian city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great less than a decade before. 

Accounts of his time in Alexandria are scarce, but he may have studied under the famous mathematician Euclid, a man often referred to as the ‘Father of Geometry.’

Whether or not he did, evidence suggests that Archimedes was influenced by Euclid’s work, and that he incorporated elements of it into his own. 

Upon returning to Syracuse from Alexandria, Archimedes pursued a life of deep musings, practical invention, and imperial service. 

In fact, many of his inventions and advancements were solutions to problems the king himself hired him to solve–or so the stories go. 

Many of the tales associated with Archimedes contain elements of the dramatic, comical, and downright absurd. 

According to historians it’s likely that some were fabricated after his death to add flair to otherwise mundane topics. 

Archimedes’ Screw

Archimedes’ Screw
Archimedes’ Screw by Silberwolf is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Archimedes’ claims to fame include advancements in mathematics and military technology, but he’s most lauded for his labor-saving screw. 

According to legend, King Hiero II was constantly bothered by rain and leaking sea water collecting in the hulls of his ships. 

Unable to come up with a simple and effective solution, he turned to Archimedes for help. 

After pondering the problem carefully and ruling out more traditional methods of removal, the inventor devised an ingenious contraption.

The device consisted of a screw or auger twisted around a central shaft set snugly inside a slightly larger cylinder.

Alternate models used a hollow tube coiled into a spiral around a shaft, which eliminated the need for an exterior cylinder.

Early examples were made of wood, while later ones were constructed from metal. 

The latter were heavier and more durable, but rudimentary metallurgy techniques meant that fabrication was expensive and laborious.

Nonetheless they were relatively portable, and could be used in a variety of applications.   

Regardless of design, one end was lowered into the offending water, while the other was elevated over it at an angle of about 45 degrees. 

On the topside, a worker or workers cranked a handle. 

The spinning screw or tube gulped water intermittently and transmitted it upward with each successive turn.

With continuous cranking it wasn’t long before a steady stream ejected from the top until only minimal amounts remained in the pool below.  

Artists’ renderings show man-size devices with diameters greater than a foot that would’ve been capable of moving large quantities of water with relative ease.

The uncomplicated yet efficient machine worked amazingly well, and it’s still used today.

Now Archimedes’ screws are typically powered by diesel engines for flood and rainwater management applications, but in developing countries they’re often still cranked by hand and used in agriculture. 

By contemporary standards it seems odd that a king would trouble himself with concerns so petty as stagnant water in the hulls of ships, but it makes for an interesting story. 

The King’s New Crown

The King’s New Crown

Yet another story involving Archimedes and Hiero is based on a new crown the king commissioned from a local craftsman. 

According to legend, Hiero allotted a fixed amount of solid gold for the project. 

It was weighed beforehand, and when the finished product was presented it bore the exact same weight. 

The story might end there, but the wary king caught wind that the craftsman may have substituted some of the gold for cheaper silver and pocketed the difference. 

Archimedes was tasked with determining whether or not he’d been bilked.

The situation perplexed his astute mind, and after considering the conundrum from nearly every angle he wasn’t anywhere close to concluding the business. 

Then, after a long day of contemplation the weary thinker eased himself into a public bathtub to soothe his frazzled nerves. 

As his feet, legs, and torso became submerged, he noticed that the volume of water cascading over the tub’s edge increased.

He realized with a start that this common phenomena was the answer he’d been looking for all along. 

Like the water disturbed by his body entering the tub, he surmised that he could accurately discern the density of the crown by submerging it and measuring the water it displaced. 

Since he already knew the crown’s weight and could easily ascertain its volume, determining its density–and therefore purity–would require only relatively easy calculations.

Silver is less dense and therefore lighter than gold, so gold that has been adulterated with silver will displace more water than solid gold of the same weight. 

It’s claimed that upon this revelation Archimedes lept from the tub and ran unclothed into the street bellowing “Eureka! Eureka,” or “I found it! I found it!”

Ironically, there’s no mention of whether or not the artisan swiped the king’s gold.

If the story is true there are two likely outcomes. 

If he’d done nothing underhanded he might’ve lived out the remainder of his days in faithful service to his grateful king. 

On the contrary, the punishment for theft may have banishment, imprisonment, or execution.   

Either way, an ending of some sort would’ve been nice.   

Burning Mirrors and the Defense of Syracuse

Burning Mirrors

Whereas many of Archimedes’ inventions dealt with benign problems like royal crowns and stagnant seawater, others were more bellicose in nature.

Due to its strategic location and commercial might, Sicily was constantly on the frontlines of geopolitical events in the region. 

Caught in a massive tug-of-war between Rome and Carthage, the threat of invasion perpetually loomed on the horizon during the reign of Hiero II. 

Not one to sit around waiting for nature to run its course, Hiero employed Archimedes to beef up the island’s defenses. 

Archimedes’ work included strengthening fortress walls and building innovative war machines, the likes of which the world had never seen. 

Shortly thereafter when a rogue faction within the government openly declared its loyalty to Carthage, embittered Roman politicians and military commanders began amassing forces for the inevitable onslaught. 

Then in the early years of the 2nd century BC, Roman forces made a final push for the island of Sicily, and though the defenders were unable to stave off the invaders permanently, many of Archimedes’ inventions were used with some success. 

It’s often claimed that the catapult was one of the inventor’s designs, but there were other more dramatic ones like ‘The Claw,’ which consisted of a giant iron talon connected to a chain and beam concealed behind the wall of a coastal position.

Although specific size and weight measurements seem to have vanished over time, accounts and drawings suggest that the implements were at least as tall as ships and weighed many tons. 

The claws’ immense bulk and gravity did much of the work, but only after they were hoisted into position by large pulleys and stout men. 

Some accounts claim that the colossal device grasped the bottoms of approaching ships and capsized them, while others say it plunged down from above, toppling rigging and superstructure before sending the unlucky vessels to the sea bed in dramatic fashion. 

As impressive and effective as these devices may have been, it’s Archimedes’ ‘Burning Mirrors’ that supposedly took things to another level altogether. 

Limited by scant resources and inadequate manpower, Archimedes did what he did best when devising ingenious ways to protect his island home. 

To use a  modern term, he thought outside the box.  

Legend has it that before the invasion he invented a method of focusing sunlight using mirrors, and when the conditions were right, the results were nothing short of spectacular. 

As anyone who’s ever burned a leaf with a magnifying glass knows, it doesn’t take long to make fire.

On a much grander scale, Archimedes’ system was apparently able to destroy enemy vessels far out at sea. 

Reports of ships exploding and bursting into flames abound. 

Though it’s fun to imagine and theoretically possible to reduce wooden ships to ashes using concentrated sunlight, it’s highly impractical even by 21st century standards. 

Nevertheless the legend persists, but even if it is true, it wasn’t enough, because the island did eventually fall after a two year siege.  

Over the years the ‘Burning Mirrors’ legend has caught the attention of a number of scientists, historians and adventurers who’ve sought to prove or debunk the whole thing once and for all. 

In the early ‘70s a Greek team conducted an experiment during which dozens of sailors reflected the sun’s rays with oblong mirrors nearly 5 feet long onto a pitch-coated wooden boat 150 feet away. 

Apparently the boat caught fire rather quickly, but another experiment by the crew of the television show MythBusters nearly four decades later had different results. 

They used 500 volunteers aiming 500 mirrors, all of which had nearly no effect on a harmless boat bobbing peacefully in the distance.  

More likely interpretations are that the mirrors were designed to blind and disorient nautical invaders, or to frighten them into believing they were up against powerful technology against which they couldn’t hope to compete. 

Whatever the case, it seems unlikely that Archimedes’ laser-like invention built with primitive mirrors sent many enemy ships into the murky depths. 

Other Works

Though many of them don’t exactly make for engaging reading, some of Archimedes’ lesser known advancements and inventions have had the biggest impacts on modern society. 

He’s said to have crafted the world’s first odometer using a wheelbarrow-like cart with a contraption rigged to its front wheel that dropped a pebble into a bucket after each revolution. 

Since it was known how far the wheel traveled with each turn, total distance could be determined by multiplying that figure by the number of stones in the bucket. 

Archimedes also did groundbreaking work with pulleys and levers, famously saying of the latter, “Give me a place to stand on and I can move the earth.”

He also delved heavily into mathematics and physics, and is credited with a number of breakthroughs in geometry including methods by which the volume of spheres and cylinders are calculated.

However, he’s probably most famous for discovering the law of hydrostatics, which is now commonly referred to as ‘Archimedes’ Principle.’

This principle deals with submerged objects, buoyancy, and water displacement. 

If it sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s the formal name for the discovery he made in the bathtub while contemplating the composition of the king’s new crown.

Archimedes was purportedly more proud of his theoretical work than of his machines, which he considered clumsy and inadequate. 

In fact, his grave was adorned with his theorem stating that the volume of a sphere is equal to 2/3s of the cylinder in which it is inscribed. 

Death

Archimedes’ inventions did help temporarily repel the Roman siege of Syracuse, but the city eventually fell. 

Keen on harnessing Archimedes’ great mind for their own aims, Roman generals sent soldiers to find him. 

It’s reported that when he was located, the 75-year-old was so immersed in a confounding mathematical problem that he dismissed the soldiers rudely, after which one killed him with a blow of his sword.  

Sadly, many of Archimedes’ original texts have been lost forever. 

A few of the most notable ones were last seen in the 14th and 16th centuries respectively. 

On the bright side, his Palimpsest is now in a very safe but unlikely place–The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

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