Beyond the eureka moment: inside the ingenious mind of Archimedes

Archimedes is known for his bathtime genius. A new exhibition fills in many more of the details


For those of us other than classics students, the name Archimedes tends to conjure up images of an eccentric ancient Greek running naked around the streets of Athens shouting “eureka”, in reference to his celebrated discovery about water volume. But Archimedes was far from eccentric, and the streets he ran around were actually those of Syracuse in Sicily, which, in the third century BC, was a self-governing colony of Magna Graecia. Furthermore, it turns out that old Archimedes was no ivory-tower recluse; rather, he proved himself supremely useful as inventor of vicious war machines during the second Punic War, when the Romans laid siege to Syracuse.

From this summer until January 12th next year, Rome’s Capitoline Museums (the one at the campidoglio, or town hall) is running an exhibition called Archimedes: The Art and Science of Invention. For those of us who did not study ancient Greek history, the exhibition offers a fascinating insight into Archimedes’s time.

It points out that King Hierro II, the ruler of Syracuse, once confronted Archimedes, asking him what was the point of all his studies and his journeys to Alexandria, in Egypt. Show me something useful that you can do, he demanded. Okay, said Archimedes, come down to the harbour in a few days’ time.

When the king arrived in the harbour, Archimedes showed him the first example of his famous “endless screw”. It was the key to a block-and-tackle pulley system that made it possible for one man with a rope and a winch to pull a boat on to the shore. After he had made his point, Archimedes reportedly exclaimed: “Give me a solid place to stand on and I will move the earth for you.”

Syracuse was the centre of the world, culturally and commercially. In a port town, his endless screw, once placed inside a cylinder, became especially useful for moving water, particularly the bilge water that leaked through the wooden hulls of most boats. When the Romans laid siege to Syracuse, Archimedes helped defend his home town by inventing a vicious-looking launcher that fired spears at the Romans. He also came up with an infamous “giant claw” systemthat lifted besieging boats out of the water, tossed the sailors out and sank the vessels.

One of the most engaging aspects of this exhibition, especially for those who opt to visit it with children, are the models, nearly all made by the Galilleo Museum in Florence, which illustrate the ingenious Archimedes mind. There are models not only of his artillery but also of his peace-time inventions, such as water clocks, sun dials, hauling devices and even a giant lobsided seesaw that explains much of the leverage principle basic to his thinking

If a small child sits on one end of the lopsided seesaw, he can lift his two bigger brothers. The longer your side, the more leverage you have and the more weight you can shift. Visitors can try this one (and others) out for themselves on the third floor, above the more academic part of the exhibition.

Not a huge amount is known about Archimedes’s personal life. It is not even clear if he married and had a family. What is clear from this exhibition, though, is that Archimedes was not only an innovative inventor but also a great speculative thinker, astronomer and scientist who later inspired Galilleo and Leonardo, among others. He also established close contacts with great Arab scholars, especially those based in Alessandria.

According to Plutarch, Archimedes died in 212 BC when he was killed by a Roman soldier during the siege of Syracuse. The soldier allegedly became infuriated when he refused to break off from studying a mathematical diagram to go and meet the Roman general Claudius Marcellus, who had captured the town. That moment features in the exhibition in a painting by the 17th-century master Guillaume De Courtois.

And, yes, the exhibition also provides a version of what the famous “eureka” bath would have looked like – a very modern facility. But then Archimedes was a very modern man.

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