Archimedes was born in the ancient Greek city-state of Syracuse in 287 B.C. He is remembered as one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists of all time. Many of his inventions – most notably the Archimedes' screw – continue to be used today. His work in arithmetic, geometry, mechanics and hydrostatics is foundational to much of our modern understanding of these fields. Archimedes is also credited with inventing a number of military devices. Most of these devices were originally designed to prove his mathematical and mechanical theories and were adapted for military use when Syracuse was attacked by the Romans under Marcellus.
Catapults and Similar Siege Engines
The first century historian Plutarch, in transcribing an account of Marcellus's siege of Syracuse, describes a number of "engines" designed to hurl arrows and rocks at attacking Roman troops and ships. According to this account, some of the rocks hurled from Archimedes's catapults weighed as much as 10 talents – around 700 pounds. Marcellus also reported a device that made it appear as if the city wall rapidly shot out arrows and stones at the attacking troops. Marcellus also used a variety of weapons able to hurl or shoot projectiles at attackers both at great range and directly under the city's walls.
The Archimedes claw was a device used to demonstrate the power of leverage. Archimedes used long ropes affixed to a ship to tip it over with minimal force. The defenders of Syracuse used this principle by firing ropes with a crow's-head-shaped device at the Roman ships and pulling on the ropes to overturn the ships or to dash them on Syracuse's rugged coastline. It is uncertain how the claws were delivered. Suggestions vary from cranes to catapults and trebuchet-like devices.
Twelfth century historians John Tzetzes and John Zonares credit Archimedes with using a system of mirrors to direct the heat of the sun at Roman ships, setting them ablaze. Zonares goes so far as to claim that Archimedes destroyed the Roman fleet this way. Many modern historians and scientists consider these claims dubious. However, a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering students were successful in replicating the feat of setting a ship ablaze using only mirrors in a 2005 set test, lending plausibility to the legend that Archimedes invented a death ray using mirrors.
The steam cannon is another questionable device credited to Archimedes. Plutarch and Leonardo da Vinci both claimed that he had developed one. Some historians suggest that the cannon – which allegedly used rapidly-heated steam to propel a projectile – may have been the actual device which caused the fires attributed to the "death ray." They suggest it is possible that Archimedes used such a device to fire hollow clay projectiles filled with an incendiary to set the ships ablaze. The year after their successful attempt to construct a death ray, MIT engineering students also successfully tested the steam cannon's feasibility, using a design similar to the one Leonardo credited to Archimedes.
- New York University: Archimedes
- New York University: Archimedes' Claw
- New York University: Burning Mirrors
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Classics: Marcellus by Plutarch
- BBC: Archimedes
- New York Times: Archimedes: Separating Myth from Science
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Archimedes Death Ray: Idea Feasibility Testing
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Archimedes' Steam Cannon
About the Author
Dell Markey is a full-time journalist. When he isn't writing business spotlights for local community papers, he writes and has owned and operated a small business.