Archimedes of Syracuse (~-287 - ~-212)

Archimedes of Syracuse Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician, inventor, physicist, engineer and astronomer. Not much is known about his life today, and unfortunately, a book by Herakleides titled “The Life of Archimedes” has probably not survived.

From what is known, he was born around 287 BC in Syracuse, Sicily, son of astronomer Phidias and related to King Hiero II, ruler of the city. He probably travelled to Alexandria, Egypt, the cultural centre of the world at the time, where he was taught mathematics by the successors of Euclid. He established a friendship with another famous mathematician, Conon of Samos, while he also had a professional relationship with Eratosthenes of Kyrineia, director of the Library of Alexandria.

Returning to Syracuse, he devoted himself to mathematical research and inventions. It is said that many of his inventions were put to use against Romans, who besieged the city. For example, he created catapults that were able to target nearby and remote locations. He also used mirrors that redirected sunrays to a desired spot, thus putting Roman ships ablaze. The city, which had been well protected thanks to Archimedes’ inventions, finally fell into Roman hands two years later. It is said that when a Roman soldier found Archimedes, he simply responded “Do not disturb my circles”, referring to a mathematical diagram he was working on at that moment. However, according to Plutarch, this did not happen and provides two alternatives. The first one says that Archimedes was asked to follow the soldier in order to meet General Marcellus, but he denied because he first had to finish his work on a mathematical problem; as a result, the enraged soldier killed him. According to the other alternative, the soldier killed him, thinking the mathematical instruments he was carrying were valuable.

Archimedes’ contribution to engineering is immense, having invented the pulley, the gear and a complex pump station. A famous quote by Archimedes is “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth”; in fact, he proved to Hiero that using a pulley – gear system, he could move a huge ship along with its crew on his own. Another famous contribution of Archimedes in this field that was also named after him is the screw of Archimedes. This device consisted of a screw inside a cylinder; as the screw was turned, water could be transferred from a low-lying location into irrigation channels. The screw of Archimedes is still in use today for similar purposes.

In Astronomy, Ipparchus says that Archimedes studied the solstices and tried to calculate the duration of a year. Other sources report that he also measured the distance between planets. In Mathematics and Geometry, he presented a method for calculating the number π, and he also perfected the Greek numbering system; he calculated the surface of the sphere and the cylinder; and he studied the squaring of curvilinear shapes.

His inventions and ideas are numerous and he made a considerable contribution in the advancement of knowledge; therefore, it is fair to consider him one of the greatest mathematicians and inventors of all time.

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