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 phenomenon).
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.