We remember the great minds of Greek antiquity for their mathematics and philosophy. Archimedes came somewhat late in that era but like many of the earlier heroes Archimedes’ inventions and life were bound by war.
These wars resulted in the highest designs of the pure-minded mathematicians being diverted to engineering to aid the war machine. In fact looking forward it is not so difficult to see parallels between the lives of great inventors, Archimedes, Galileo and Leonardo. Each left a wealth of inventions that would be used directly or indirectly for war.
Archimedes, a Greek from Syracuse on the southern shores of Sicily, was a son of the most powerful Greek city in the Mediterranean and probably ‘high-born’. Syracuse was founded some 450 years before his birth by Greeks from Corinth. Archimedes’ inventions and mathematical proofs all come from his life there until a Roman sword plunged him into history at the age of 75. Archimedes left little direct evidence of his greatness but was recognised by historians of the era for his legacy.
What was that greatness?
Archimedes sits on top of a pyramid of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He apparently studied in Alexandria where he maintained on-going relations, sending his friends new mathematical solutions and a few tricks to test the not-so honest among them. He believed that his greatest work was the discovery of the mathematical connection between a cylinder circumsubscribed on a sphere, and apparently he had instructed that his tomb would carry these sculpted geometric elements.
But we also recognise him for his mathematics of approximation to value numbers that are now called irrational, such as the square root of 3 and π. Archimedes is consequentially linked to the invention some 15 centuries later of calculus. Yet for many centuries his mathematics lay fallow.
Archimedes is known among students worldwide for one word: “Eureka”, Greek for “I’ve found it”, when he reportedly leapt out of his bath and ran naked down the streets to expostulate how to determine the purity of gold by measuring the volume of water it displaced. His immortality was assured with the story of this discovery, with Archimedes Principle. This Archimedes invention linked him to engineering, and it is his engineering inventions that have been recognised and reconstructed to recall his brilliance.
Archimedes Park Museum
Opposite the Greek Theatre in Syracuse where the tragedies are re-enacted each May, is an equally famous memorial to antiquity. It is the Tecnoparco Archimede, Archimedes Park Museum. There you can find reconstructions as historically accurate as ancient records allow, Archimedes inventions, his engineering and war machines.
For it was war that demanded his attention in his later years, when the incessant Romans laid a 3 year siege on Syracuse from 215 BC. But prior to this Archimedes ensured the future of the wine industry when he invented the Archimedes Screw, still used today in the first stage of separating the precious drop from the stalks and leaves, as well as in traditional clay extrusion mixers and mineral processing.
At the Archimedes Park you will find this screw and the range of his more aggressive machines, the Archimedes Claw, solar reflectors (either for creating fire aboard the ships or bedazzling the attacking Romans) and a range of ballistas for hurling large rocks out to sea and closer range catapults and crossbows. All these lethal weapons elegantly demonstrating in Archimedes’ inventions his command of mathematics, physics, mechanical and materials engineering.
Wander around the park and admire his feats or sit under the shade of a tree while considering the commentary of Plutarch, Archimede’s most effective biographer:
‘Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific knowledge, that though these inventions had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life’.