4 remarkable inventions of Archimedes that still baffle us

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Last month, we talked about the ten ‘hi-tech’ weapons from history, and how these crafty designs were far ahead of their times. And, speaking of being ‘ahead of times’ very few can surpass the sheer ingenuity possessed by the great Archimedes. An Ancient Greek engineer, inventor, astronomer and a mathematician, he is known for devising a range of mathematical concepts, including – infinitesimals and the method of exhaustion (for determining famous geometrical theorems, like area of a circle), the approximation of the value of pi, and a system of exponentiation for defining very large numbers. These brilliant ‘concoctions’ are complemented on the engineering level by a bevy of mechanical inventions that range from screw pumps to war machines. Suffice it to say, we as curators of history and science are more interested in these mechanized contraptions – and so without further ado, let us talk about the four probable (and fascinating) inventions of Archimedes that still impress us with their scope of ‘modernity’.

*We use the term PROBABLE because very few details of Archimedes’ life is actually known to historians, with most sources pertaining to literary evidences that were written after the genius’s lifetime. In other words, no extant specimens of Archimedes’ work remain – and, as such all these ‘inventions’ are based on history-based hypotheses.

1) Archimedes’ Screw –

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An ingeniously contrived device, the Archimedes’ Screw consisted of a screw mechanism inside a hollow casing. This screw could be rotated by using by the force of wind (via windmill) or by manual labor (presumably via a lever at the top). So, as the shaft made its turning motion, the bottom end of the mechanism scooped up volumes of water. In essence, the volume of water traveled through the casing against gravity, and finally reached the upper level irrigation canals. This allowed farmers to salvage precious water from various low-level zones, including mines and ravines.

Now in terms of engineering, there could have been two variants to the design of the Archimedes’ Screw, with one entailing a movable screw within a fixed casing, and the other encompassing a rotating screw that moved along with a rotating casing. In either case, the screw was mostly probably connected to the inner section of the shell with the use of pitch resin. There also must have been scenarios where the entire contraption was created as a collective whole, with the singular piece being made of bronze.

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Interestingly, from the literary perspective, Greek writer Athenaeus of Naucratis had mentioned how the Archimedes’ Screw was built out of necessity to drain water from what was possibly the largest ship in the ancient world – Syracusia. This massive marine-based craft (also designed by Archimedes himself) could hold over 600 people, and additionally boasted of onboard facilities like garden decorations, a gymnasium and an Aphrodite temple! The predicament however related to how the gargantuan ship still leaked water through the hull. So, as an ingenious solution, the Archimedes’ Screw could remove the bilge water against gravity to keep the ship safely afloat.

2) Claw of Archimedes –

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While the aforementioned Archimedes’ Screw possibly played its part in ship-safety measures, the Claw of Archimedes fulfilled quite an opposite purpose. Probably devised to protect the sea-bordering wall of the ancient city of Syracuse against enemy ships, the military machine had been described by ancient writers as a sort of crane-like mechanism with a suspended grappling hook. So, when the claw was activated (possibly by giant lever that took many men to operate), this hanging hook could physically lift the ship by attaching itself to the prow. The sheer momentum of this enormous hook could then topple and sink the ship (or even disturb the nearby water to destabilize the buoyant ship).

Now, like any other invention of Archimedes, the many researchers have tried to test out the plausibility of the Claw of Archimedes. To that end, both BBC and Discovery Channel have proven the tenability of such a device – which does suggest that such a contraption (or at least a similar mechanism) might have seen actual action during war.

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In fact, according to Livy, the Claw of Archimedes was one of those instrumental war machines that made counter-attacks possible against the invading Roman Navy, during the bloody Siege of Syracuse that took place over two years from 214 – 212 BC. The ancient historian describes how the devices were used during the cover of night, as the Roman fleet of over 60 quinqueremes led by Marcus Claudius Marcellus made advances against the city walls. Livy even made notes of the effectiveness this tactical ploy that contributed to heavy Roman losses during the initial phases of the conflict.

3) Archimedes’ Death Ray –

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While the name definitely hints at a common Steampunk/science-fiction trope, Archimedes’ Death Ray contraption has been the subject of innumerable historical debates that have either tried to prove or disprove its existence or at least effectiveness. In any case, the use of the so-called Death Ray mechanism was first mentioned by the historian Galens, 350 years after the Roman siege of Archimedes’ home-city of Syracuse.

In terms of design, the weapon setup possibly entailed a series of mirrors that collectively reflected concentrated sunlight onto the Roman ships. As a result, the concentrated form of light affected an increase in temperature, thus ultimately leading to the burning of the ships from afar (take a look at a modern ‘death ray‘ that aptly proves this phenomenon).

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Now when it comes to credibility, Discovery’s Mythbusters already took two digs at the technology, and sort of disproved its potential. On the other hand, MIT conducted their tests in 2005 (by using mirrors in parabolic arrangement and a replica of a Roman ship), and they were actually able to set the ship on fire. However, in their case, the ship was stationery – which would have been impractical in a real-time scenario with the undulating waves and the ongoing naval maneuvering. But even this predicament was solved, when a Greek scientist named Dr. Ioannis Sakkas was actually able to set a moving ship on fire from a distance of 160 feet (49 m). He did it by distributing a total of seventy mirrors (each having 15 sq ft area) among seventy (or sixty) men, and the concentrated beam reflected from these individual pieces was able to set a rowboat aflame, thus possibly lending credence to Archimedes’ Death Ray weapon.

…continued on next page.

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4 remarkable inventions of Archimedes that still baffle us

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