The famous Greek mathematician and scholar, Archimedes of Syracuse, is known for his great discoveries. His discoveries were some of the best during the classical times. Some of his inventions include the famous Archimedes’ Principle, Archimedes’ Screw. The Claw of Archimedes ad the Heat Ray. 


of Syracuse

An Account of Archimedes
and his Exceptionally Modern Discoveries
A Short Biography of Archimedes

Archimedes was, without a doubt, one of the world’s most distinguished scientists and the greatest scientist of the classical age. He was an eminent physicist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, astronomer and scholar. He belonged to his time, as well as, ahead of his time.

Archimedes was born at Syracuse, in Sicily, the seaport city, in c. 287 BC. At that time, Syracuse was a colony in Magna Graecia, which was self-governed. Not much is known about his father, except that he was an astronomer and went by the name of Phidias. In Plutarch’s Parallel Lines, Plutarch makes a reference to Archimedes being related to the ruler of Syracuse, King Hiero II. He says that Archimedes achieved so much fame because of this close relation, with the King and his son, Gelon. Archimedes used to help Hiero solve complex problems and would utterly amaze everyone, with his prowess.

He spent all his life in Syracuse, except for a brief period; during his youth; when he went to study in Alexandria, Egypt at the school established by the famous Greek mathematician, Euclid.

Archimedes has several mathematical discoveries and other inventions to his name. He pre-empted modern calculus and analysis through the application of concepts, such as the method of exhaustion and infinitesimals. Through these concepts, he also worked towards deriving, as well as, proving a range of geometrical theorems, such as the surface area and volume of a sphere, area of a circle and the area under a parabola. Also, he is credited with the accurate approximation of pi, the creation of a system using exponentiation for expressing large numbers and investigation of the spiral, which bears his name. He is also known for designing cutting-edge machines including compound pulleys, defensive war machines, to help Hiero protect Syracuse from invasion and screw pump.

Even though Archimedes is regarded as one of the highly distinguished scientists in classical antiquity, not much is known about his writings on the same. The mathematicians from Alexandria read and quoted Archimedes and it was not until c. 530 BC that the first detailed compilation was made by Isidore of Miletus in Byzantine Constantinople. The commentaries on Archimedes’ work was compiled and written by Eutocius in the 6th century AD.

Archimedes’ works and inventions have been an influential and inspirational source for scientists during the period of Renaissance.

Archimedes died during the 2nd Punic War in c. 212 BC when the Roman forces captured Syracuse, following a 2-year siege. He was killed by a Roman soldier, Furious, despite orders from General Marcus Claudius Marcellus not to harm Archimedes. The soldier had ordered for the presence of Archimedes, but his command was not obeyed by the scientist as was he was busy contemplating a mathematical diagram. There is another lesser-known account of his death given by Plutarch, according to which, Archimedes died while trying to surrender to the Roman soldier. The soldier killed him thinking that the mathematical instruments he was carrying was something of great value.

‘Do not disturb my circles’ are the last words credited to the great scientist. This was a reference to the mathematical circles that he was drawing, when disturbed by the Roman soldiers. Much like his last words, his tomb depicts his famous diagram of a sphere in a cylinder of the exact same diameter and height. He has proved that the surface area and volume of a sphere are 2/3rds of a cylinder, which included its base.

137 years after Archimedes’ death; Cicero, the Roman orator; found his tomb in a dilapidated condition near the Agrigentine date in Syracuse. Cicero was serving as questor in Sicily, at that time, and had heard about all the works and discoveries of Archimedes, but the locals had failed to provide him, with the exact location of the tomb. Upon discovery of the tomb, he cleaned it and saw that his tomb consisted of carved verses.

In the early 1960s, there was another tomb discovered in Syracuse’s Hotel Panorama, which was claimed to be of Archimedes’. Although, there is no evidence to prove that the tomb was of Archimedes’ and its location today is unknown.


Archimedes’ Discoveries and Inventions

A number of discoveries and inventions are attributed to Archimedes’ name. Some of his breakthroughs are stated below:

Archimedes’ Principle & the Riddle of King Hiero II’s Crown

Archimedes’ most famous work is the invention of how to measure the volume of an irregularly shaped object. There is a history behind this invention. The King of Syracuse, King Hiero II, had summoned Archimedes to ascertain, whether his votive crown was made of pure gold or the goldsmith had cheated him by substituting some silver in it. The catch here was that Archimedes had to solve the problem, without causing any harm or damage to the crown. This meant that he could not melt the crown to calculate its density. One day, while taking a bath, he noticed that the water level in the bathtub rose and overflowed as he immersed himself in it. That is the moment, when he realized that he can use this same effect to measure the density of the crown. He was so excited that he immediately got out of the bathtub and ran into the streets of Greece naked, yelling ‘Eureka! Eureka!’, meaning ‘I have found it’. Archimedes found the solution to the King’s problems and knew that he had to find the density of the crown and match it, with the density of pure gold as Density = Mass/Volume. He conducted the test successfully and it was found that the goldsmith had indeed cheated the King by mixing silver in the crown.

This discovery is famously known as Archimedes’ Principle or the Law of Buoyancy and is described in detail in his treatise, On Floating Bodies. According to the principle, when a body is immersed in a fluid, it experiences a buoyant force, which is equal to the fluid it displaces. The International Bath Day, which is celebrated on the 14th of June, originally stems from this very bathtub discovery of Archimedes. He realized that the volume of an object can be accurately determined by submerging it in water and since then bath day traditionally promotes the value of bath time discoveries.

On this day, observed by children and adults alike, it is recommended to make bath time interesting by learning about sinking, floating, volume and similar basic concepts of physics.

Achievements in Engineering - Archimedes’ Screw

Archimedes’ inventions and work in engineering mainly sprung from satiating the needs of Syracuse. Athenaceus of Naucratis, the Greek writer, describes an incident of how Archimedes was commissioned to design a ship by King Hiero II, called the Syracusia. The ship was meant to serve three purposes, simultaneously - for carrying supplies, as a means of luxury travel and as a naval warship. The Syracusia, with a carrying capacity of 600 people, along with a gymnasium, garden decorations and a temple for the goddess Aphrodite, became the largest ship to be built in classical antiquity.

As a ship of such a huge size will leak a lot of water through the hull, Archimedes’s screw was developed to expel the bilge water. This device by Archimedes featured a cylinder, with a revolving screw-shaped blade on the inside. The machine had to be turned by the hand and could also be utilized for transferring water into irrigation canals from low-lying water bodies.

Vitruvius had described Archimedes’ screw in the Roman times as an enhanced version of the screw pump used to water the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Interestingly, the Archimedes’ screw is still used today for pumping granulated solids, as well as, liquids like grain and coal. In 1839, the SS Archimedes, a sea-going steamship, with a screw propeller, was launched and named in the honor of Archimedes and his excellent discovery of the screw. 

The Claw of Archimedes & the Defense of Syracuse

In order to protect the city of Syracuse from attack, Archimedes’ claw was invented. The claw of Archimedes was widely known as the ship-shaker and was designed like, the arm of a crane. The claw balanced a large suspended metal hook. When the weapon would be dropped onto attacking ships, its arm would swing upwards and lift the ship out of water and may even sink it.

A number of modern experiments have been conducted to find out the feasibility of Archimedes’ claw. In 2015, Superweapons of the Ancient World, a televised documentary, constructed a version of the weapon and arrived to the conclusion that the device actually works.

Archimedes’ Heat Ray

Lucian, the 2nd century AD author, wrote that Archimedes had destroyed ships attacking Syracuse, with fire. It is said that he may have used a number of mirrors to burn the enemy ships, which collectively acted as parabolic reflector. A few hundred years later, burning-glasses was mentioned as Archimedes’ weapon by Anthemius of Tralles.

Archimedes’ heat ray was a device that focused sunlight on the approaching enemy ships, resulting in them catching fire. Heliostat or solar furnace is a similar device as that of the heat ray that have been constructed in the recent times.

Since the Renaissance, Archimedes’ weapon has been a major subject for debate. Doubts and questions have been raised regarding its credibility. While contemporary researches have made an attempt to recreate the device by using only the means that would have been available to Archimedes, Rene Descartes has outrightly rejected it as false. It has been propounded that an assortment of highly glossy copper or bronze shields as mirrors may have been utilized to pivot the sunlight onto a ship.

In 1973, Ioannis Sakkas, a Greek scientist, carried out a series of tests on the heat ray by Archimedes at Skaramagas, a naval base situated outside Athens. 70 mirrors measuring 5 by 3 feet were used for the experiment and each of them was covered, with a copper coating. All the mirrors were pointed towards a replica of a Roman warship made of plywood, which was at a distance of 50m (160 feet). With the accurate focus of the mirrors, the ship caught fire, within a few seconds. The combustion may have been hastened due to the presence of tar paint coating on the mock-up ship. Ships, with a coating of tar, were common, during the classical era.

Another experiment for checking the credibility of the heat ray was carried out by the students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October 2005. The experiment was carried out using a 30cm (127 one-foot) square mirror tiles. The tiles were pointed towards a prototype ship situated at a distance of 30m (100 feet). Here, the ship did not burst into flames, but a patch on the ship caught fire. Also, the ship only caught fire after it had been still for about 10 minutes and the sky was clear. This experiment concluded that the device was workable, but only under the above-mentioned conditions. The same experiment was repeated by the students of MIT for MythBusters, a television show. Here, they used a fishing boat made of wood in San Francisco. Yet again, there was some amount of charring and flame, but the ship was not set ablaze. For the wood to burst into flames, it has to reach a certain autoignition temperature, which is approximately 570° F (300° C).

When the result of the experiment in San Francisco was aired by MythBusters in January 2006, it was placed under the failed category. This is because of the combustion requirements of the perfect weather conditions and the length of time. It was further pointed out that the heat ray would have only worked had the Roman fleet attacked during the morning, when the optimal requirements of light and clear sky were fulfilled as Syracuse was situated facing the sea towards the east. Additionally, MythBusters added that under such circumstances, it would have been far easier and convenient to have used bolts or flaming arrows from a catapult to set fire to ships that were at a shorter distance.

The heat ray story was again scrutinized in a notable edition, ‘President's Challenge’, by MythBusters in December 2010. There were numerous experiments that were carried out, which included an extensive test being carried out by 500 school-going children holding mirrors focused at a prototype Roman ship situated at a distance of 120m (400 feet). All the experiments failed as the sail did not reach the required temperature of 410 °F (210 °C). Therefore, the heat ray was again claimed to be ‘busted’ or failed.

The television show concluded that the plausible effects of the mirrors could have been dazzling, distracting or blinding of the ship’s crew.


Archimedes’ Legacy

Even though Archimedes is no more, his ideas and thoughts live on. His legacy continues to flourish through different forms:

  • Archimedes has been glorified several times by Galileo and referred to as ‘superhuman’.

  • Leibnez has remarked that those who understand Archimedes and Apollinius will have difficulty in admiring the accomplishments of noteworthy men of later times.

  • You can find Archimedes’ picture on the postage stamps issued by Spain (1963), Nicaragua (1971), East Germany (1973), San Marino (1982), Italy (1983) and Greece (1983).

  • In his honor, there is a crater in the Moon named Archimedes (29.7° N, 4.0° W). There is also a lunar mountain range named after him, the Montes Archimedes (25.3° N, 4.6° W).

  • People achieving outstanding feats of accomplishments in the field of mathematics receive the Fields Medal, which carries Archimedes’ portrait, as well as, an illustrative carving of the sphere and the cylinder. There is also an inscription above his head in Latin, "Transire suum pectus mundoque potiri" (Rise above oneself and grasp the world). This quote is attributed to Archimedes himself.

  • California’s state motto is ‘Eureka!,’ which is credited to Archimedes. This word also refers to the discovery of gold in 1848 near Sutter’s Mill that lead to the famous California Gold Rush.

  • Bath Day is celebrated every year on 14th June in memory of the great man and the sudden discovery he made while in his bathtub,

Now, that you know all about Archimedes, his discoveries and the story behind the International Bath Day, take out time for this one day, every year. If you have children, it is a great day for teaching them about this great man and his inventions, while also allowing them to make their own discoveries. There are various toys available in the market today to help make bath-time fun and enjoyable. Make this day an excuse to ensure your child unravels his or her own curiosities and identifies the scientist, within him or her.