IX. GREEK SCIENCE OF THE ALEXANDRIAN OR HELLENISTIC PERIOD
It should be observed that neither Polybius nor Plutarch mentions the use of burning-glasses in connection with the siege of Syracuse, nor indeed are these referred to by any other ancient writer of authority. Nevertheless, a story gained credence down to a late day to the effect that Archimedes had set fire to the fleet of the enemy with the aid of concave mirrors. An experiment was made by Sir Isaac Newton to show the possibility of a phenomenon so well in accord with the genius of Archimedes, but the silence of all the early authorities makes it more than doubtful whether any such expedient was really adopted.
It will be observed that the chief principle involved in all these mechanisms was a capacity to transmit great power through levers and pulleys, and this brings us to the most important field of the Syracusan philosopher's activity. It was as a student of the lever and the pulley that Archimedes was led to some of his greatest mechanical discoveries. He is even credited with being the discoverer of the compound pulley. More likely he was its developer only, since the principle of the pulley was known to the old Babylonians, as their sculptures testify. But there is no reason to doubt the general outlines of the story that Archimedes astounded King Hiero by proving that, with the aid of multiple pulleys, the strength of one man could suffice to drag the largest ship from its moorings.
The property of the lever, from its fundamental principle, was studied by him, beginning with the self- evident fact that "equal bodies at the ends of the equal arms of a rod, supported on its middle point, will balance each other"; or, what amounts to the same thing stated in another way, a regular cylinder of uniform matter will balance at its middle point. From this starting-point he elaborated the subject on such clear and satisfactory principles that they stand to-day practically unchanged and with few additions. From all his studies and experiments he finally formulated the principle that "bodies will be in equilibrio when their distance from the fulcrum or point of support is inversely as their weight." He is credited with having summed up his estimate of the capabilities of the lever with the well-known expression, "Give me a fulcrum on which to rest or a place on which to stand, and I will move the earth."
But perhaps the feat of all others that most appealed to the imagination of his contemporaries, and possibly also the one that had the greatest bearing upon the position of Archimedes as a scientific discoverer, was the one made familiar through the tale of the crown of Hiero. This crown, so the story goes, was supposed to be made of solid gold, but King Hiero for some reason suspected the honesty of the jeweller, and desired to know if Archimedes could devise a way of testing the question without injuring the crown. Greek imagination seldom spoiled a story in the telling, and in this case the tale was allowed to take on the most picturesque of phases. The philosopher, we are assured, pondered the problem for a long time without succeeding, but one day as he stepped into a bath, his attention was attracted by the overflow of water. A new train of ideas was started in his ever-receptive brain. Wild with enthusiasm he sprang from the bath, and, forgetting his robe, dashed along the streets of Syracuse, shouting: "Eureka! Eureka!" (I have found it!) The thought that had come into his mind was this: That any heavy substance must have a bulk proportionate to its weight; that gold and silver differ in weight, bulk for bulk, and that the way to test the bulk of such an irregular object as a crown was to immerse it in water. The experiment was made. A lump of pure gold of the weight of the crown was immersed in a certain receptacle filled with water, and the overflow noted. Then a lump of pure silver of the same weight was similarly immersed; lastly the crown itself was immersed, and of course—for the story must not lack its dramatic sequel—was found bulkier than its weight of pure gold. Thus the genius that could balk warriors and armies could also foil the wiles of the silversmith.
Whatever the truth of this picturesque narrative, the fact remains that some, such experiments as these must have paved the way for perhaps the greatest of all the studies of Archimedes—those that relate to the buoyancy of water. Leaving the field of fable, we must now examine these with some precision. Fortunately, the writings of Archimedes himself are still extant, in which the results of his remarkable experiments are related, so we may present the results in the words of the discoverer.
Here they are: "First: The surface of every coherent liquid in a state of rest is spherical, and the centre of the sphere coincides with the centre of the earth. Second: A solid body which, bulk for bulk, is of the same weight as a liquid, if immersed in the liquid will sink so that the surface of the body is even with the surface of the liquid, but will not sink deeper. Third: Any solid body which is lighter, bulk for bulk, than a liquid, if placed in the liquid will sink so deep as to displace the mass of liquid equal in weight to another body. Fourth: If a body which is lighter than a liquid is forcibly immersed in the liquid, it will be pressed upward with a force corresponding to the weight of a like volume of water, less the weight of the body itself. Fifth: Solid bodies which, bulk for bulk, are heavier than a liquid, when immersed in the liquid sink to the bottom, but become in the liquid as much lighter as the weight of the displaced water itself differs from the weight of the solid." These propositions are not difficult to demonstrate, once they are conceived, but their discovery, combined with the discovery of the laws of statics already referred to, may justly be considered as proving Archimedes the most inventive experimenter of antiquity.