Archimedes of Syracuse was one of the greatest mathematicians in history. He was also a great inventor and scientist. Most of what we know about Archimedes today comes from his writings and those of his contemporaries.
Born in Syracuse, Sicily (then part of Greece), in about 287 B.C., Archimedes traveled to Egypt at the age of 18 to study at the great library of Alexandria. Upon completing his studies, he returned to Syracuse, where he spent the remainder of his life.
Archimedes was obsessed with mathematics. He would become so involved in his work that he would forget to eat. He scribbled notes and figures on any available surface. When outside, he used a stick to draw on the ground; when inside, he used his finger to trace figures in the olive oil on his skin.
Out of this obsession came many of his greatest theories and proofs, such as the means for approximating square roots, the value of pi (the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter), and the creation of a way to describe very large numbers. He also devised methods for calculating areas and volumes 2,000 years before the invention of calculus. In addition, Archimedes proved that the volume of a sphere is two-thirds the volume of a circumscribed cylinder. He considered this proof his greatest accomplishment and even requested that a representation of a sphere inside a cylinder be inscribed on his tomb.
Archimedes was well known for his inventions and scientific discoveries. The most famous of these were the Archimedes' Screw (a device for raising water that is still used in crop irrigation and sewage treatment plants today) and Archimedes' principle of buoyancy. Legend has it that he discovered this principle while in the bath, where he noticed that the more of his body he submerged in the water, the greater the amount of water that over-flowed the bath. Upon making this discovery, he is said to have run naked through the streets of Syracuse, shouting "Eureka!" (Greek for "I have found it!").
When the Romans invaded Syracuse in 214 B.C., Archimedes invented "engines of war" to defend the city, including cranes to drop rocks, claws to lift ships from the water, and machines to fire wooden missiles. He also devised a system of mirrors that focused the sun's light on enemy ships, setting the ships on fire.
After the Romans successfully captured the city in 212 B.C., Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier after he allegedly told the soldier, "Don't disturb my circles"—a reference to a series of figures Archimedes had outlined in the sand. As he wished, Archimedes' tombstone is marked with the figure of a sphere enclosed by a cylinder and the 2:3 ratio of their volumes.
c. 287 B.C.
c. 269 B.C.
c. 263 B.C.
c. A.D. 1000
c. A.D. 1200
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