Much of the maths and science that you study today is based on the discoveries and theories made centuries ago by the great thinkers of Ancient Greece. Archimedes was one of the most influential scientists of his time.
ARCHIMEDES’ EARLY LIFE
There is not much information about Archimedes’ childhood, though we know that he was born in 287 bc in Syracuse, Sicily. Syracuse was a Greek city at this time. His father was an astronomer named Phidias, who may have encouraged his son’s scientific education. After studying as much as he could in Syracuse, Archimedes travelled to Alexandria in Egypt.
AN EDUCATION IN ALEXANDRIA
Alexandria was a fairly new city, founded by Alexander the Great in 322 bc, but it already had a reputation as a place of culture and learning. Here Archimedes studied works in the huge Library of Alexandria, and learnt from great mathematicians. Euclid, one of the greatest mathematicians, had founded a school of mathematics in Alexandria. His work The Elements was hugely important in the development of geometry. Archimedes would have been able to read this work while he was in Alexandria.
BACK IN SYRACUSE
On his return to Syracuse, Archimedes devoted his time to writing and inventing. There are many legends about how he used science to solve problems for the king of Syracuse, Hiero II. According to one tale, the king asked him to invent a way of moving water upwards in order to get rainwater out of a ship’s hull. Archimedes devised the Archimedes screw—a spiral inside a tube that lifts up water when it is turned. This machine has been valuable for centuries as a means of pumping water and draining land, and it is still used in some parts of the world.
Perhaps the most famous story about Archimedes deals with the discovery of the law of hydrostatics. According to legend, when he stepped into his bath, the water overflowed. Archimedes immediately realized that the denser the object (the more mass it has for each unit of volume), the more water would be displaced by it. He went on to develop the law known as the Archimedes’ Principle.
This law means that you can determine the buoyancy of an object (that is, how well it floats) by placing it in fluid, and measuring how far the fluid level rises.
WAR TECHNOLOGY AND THE SIEGE OF SYRACUSE
In 213 bc Roman forces attempted to capture Syracuse. The city resisted for nearly two years with the help of defensive weapons created by Archimedes, such as catapults, trebuchets (machines used for throwing stones) and cranes. The Romans managed to invade the city in 212 bc. According to historians, Archimedes was so engrossed in the diagrams that he had been drawing in the dust that he did not even notice the invasion, and sadly was killed by a Roman soldier.