Archimedes

Archimedes was a citizen of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily. He was born about 287 B.C. and died in 212 B.C. He reported that his father's name was Phidias and was an astronomer. So he probably had a scientific and philosophic upbringing. He may have visited Alexandria, Egypt where he would have had access to the great library there. He was an advanced mathematician and was in frequent correspondence with the mathematicians in that city of learning.

Archimedes was famous in his day not only as a philosopher and mathematician but as an inventor. Today he is most remembered for creating a devise called the screw of Archimedes, or what we now call an auger. It is commonly used for digging holes straight into the ground or to move bulk items and even water from a lower to a higher level.

Within the field of mathematics Archimedes made an early advance on the calculus by using progressively smaller increments to measure the area of a circle and other objects with rounded edges.

In Syracuse itself, he was a prominent man, working for King Heiron, and later his son Gelon. Because the writings of Archimedes were so important much of it is still extant including writings labelled: On the Sphere and Cylinder, Measurement of the Circle, On Conoids and Spheroids, On Spirals, On Plane Equilibria, The Sand-Reckoner, Quadrature of a Parabola, On Floating Bodies, Stomachion, and The Method1. Many of the titles are manifest, but in the Sand-Reckoner he attempts to calculate the total number of grains of sand that would fit in the known universe.

Stories about the eccentricity of Archimedes abound. He so much loved his work that he had to be led by his students to bathe. He could not seem to make the time for it. One time having been led to his bath he discovered the principle of buoyancy, that the buoyant force is equal to the weight of the liquid displaced. When this thought struck him he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting "Eureka!" or "I have found it!"2 To this day, it is common parlance for a person to say "Eureka" when he or she strikes on a supposed brilliant thought.

The Siege of Syracuse

Early in the career of the Roman Republic, the martial city state came into conflict with Syracuse. The Roman forces were commanded by Marcellus. King Geron II called on the mind of Archimedes to help defend the city. To aid the defense, Archimedes developed weapons which were incredibly advanced for the time, including the catapult and, most spectacularly, a series of mirrors which were used to focus the sun's rays to incinerate Roman triremes. Effective as these weapons were Roman determination won the day.

Archimedes was killed while the Romans sacked the city. It was said that he had drawn some circles in the sand and was studying them when a Roman soldier disturbed his work. Thus confronted, he begged the soldier not to disturb the circles. The soldier then capriciously slew him ending the life of one of the greatest minds of the age.3 The Roman commander mourned the death of Archimedes, and declared his killer a murderer.


  1. Extant Works of Archimedes
  2. Wolfram Biography of Archimedes
  3. Death of Archimedes

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