Archimedes of Syracuse was one of the ancient world’s great
scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. In mathematics, his work on
geometry, particularly cones, spheres, and cylinders, was unsurpassed. He
anticipated calculus and studied in depth hydrostatics, mechanics, matter, and
force. He perfected the screw used in irrigation and solved many engineering
problems associated with the use of the pulley, wedge, and lever. In geodesy,
Archimedes estimated the circumference of the earth to be 300,000 stadia.
Archimedes was the first to study and make an accurate approximation of pi.
Archimedes, like other ancient engineers, plied his craft in
making fascinating inventions, particularly in military science. During the
Second Punic War and the battle for Sicily in 212 BCE, the Romans laid siege to
the Greek city of Syracuse, ruled by Hiero. Archimedes to apply his inventions
based on research into the principles of mechanics to help defend the city.
Plutarch, in his Life of Marcellus, described the fascinating array of military
devices that Archimedes had invented. Although the Romans took the city and
Archimedes was killed, they were astonished by the incredible power of
Archimedes’ machines. Huge cranes were able to latch onto Roman triremes and
pick them up and dash them against the walls of the city and rocks below.
According to the Roman historian Plutarch, Archimedes
considered such work “ignoble and vulgar, ” and there is no mention
of it in the fifty extant scientific works he wrote. He instead wrote about his
fundamental discoveries in mathematics, chiefly formulas on finding the areas
of various geometric figures and determining the volumes of spheres. But
however disdainful Archimedes might have been about the practical uses of his
scientific discoveries, he was a fervent Syracusan patriot. So when Hieron II,
the ruler of Syracuse, begged his help in 215 b. c. e. at the moment of the
city’s greatest crisis, Archimedes put his scientific genius to work in the
service of war.
Syracuse, a Greek colony in modern-day Sicily that occupied
a key strategic position athwart Mediterranean trade routes, had made the error
of supporting the Carthaginians in their war against Rome. The Carthaginians
were defeated, and now the Romans had come after Carthage’s ally Syracuse. A
Roman invasion fleet of eighty ships showed up in Syracuse’s harbor to begin a
blockade while some fifty thousand Roman troops prepared to besiege the city.
Appointed general of ordnance for the city, Archimedes went to work. He
designed a number of advanced war machines, including a huge swinging crane
that hurled 600-pound leaden balls; rapid-firing catapults that shot bundles of
Greek fire; and, if some accounts are to be believed, a system of giant mirrors
that reflected concentrated sunlight to burn ships. For three years the Roman
besiegers threw themselves at this array of military technology, to no avail:
Roman ships were smashed to pieces and Roman troops were cut down at long range
by high-velocity fire from catapults Archimedes positioned atop the city’s
defensive walls. Finally, in 212 b. c. e., while the Syracusans were
celebrating a religious festival, the Romans discovered an unguarded gate, and
the city fell. Roman soldiers who poured through the gate found a half-naked
elderly man sitting in a bed of sand, absorbed in drawing geometrical shapes.
When one of the soldiers stepped onto the sand, the old man snapped at him,
“Keep off, you!” Enraged, the soldier immediately ran his sword through
Archimedes of Syracuse, then joined his comrades in an orgy of looting and
killing that destroyed the city.
Archimedes’ Death Ray
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 (which in took
place in 214 BC). Designed by the great Archimedes himself, 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
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