rating: +1+x

The soldier found the old man sitting on the ground drawing in the dirt with a stick. "Hey! The General wants to see you!" he shouted. The old man ignored him, continuing to draw his meaningless doodles. "Old man! Do you hear me? I'm talking to you!" the soldier shouted again. Still, the old man continued to draw his lines.

Finally, the soldier planted his foot right in front of the old man and drew his sword. "I said, the General wants to see you!"

The old man looked up at the soldier with an irritated glare. "Don't disturb my circles."

Basic Information

Archimedes of Syracuse was arguably the greatest mathematician and inventor of the Ancient World. He invented the Archimedes screw and numerous other gadgets; he developed theories of hydrostatics and geometry and almost invented calculus. In some respects he is the archetype for the Absent-Minded Professor; but he is also an early example of the brilliant weapons designer. He is perhaps best known for taking a bath. And for shouting.

He was born c. 287 BC in the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Little is known about his life. His father, Phidias, is believed to have been an astronomer, and an early biographer claimed he was related to King Hiero II of Syracuse. Archimedes may have studied in Alexandria, Egypt, but most of his known career took place in his native Syracuse.

According to legend, he was once asked by the King to determine if a crown which had been commissioned from a goldsmith was made of pure gold, or if the smith had alloyed it with silver and pocketed the unused gold. While taking a bath, Archimedes noticed how his body displaced an amount of water equal to its volume and realized how this principle could be used to solve the problem. The story goes that he sprang from the bath shouting "Eureka!" meaning "I have found it!"

He invented the Archimedes screw, a screw-shaped blade set inside a cylinder which could be used to raise water and loose solids such as grain or earth, which is still used in industry. He developed different methods utilizing pulleys and levers to move objects and is supposed to have said, "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth."

He was able to arrive at a reasonably good approximation for the value of pi, using a method similar to modern calculus. In one of his surviving treatises, The Sand Reckoner, he calculated how many grains of sand it would take to fill the known universe. (In case you're interested, it's 8 x 1063). He considered his greatest achievement to be his mathematical proof that a sphere has 2/3 the volume and surface area of its circumscribing cylinder.

During the Second Punic War, Syracuse was besieged by the Romans, and King Hiero put Archimedes' genius to work defending the city. It is said that he designed a crane with an enormous claw that was capable of grabbing enemy ships and lifting them out of the water. The most controversial claim is that he designed a method of using curved shields to reflect the sun's rays and focus them in order to set enemy ships on fire. Various experiments have suggested that this one was not actually possible. Still, it's a good gimmick.

Ultimately, though, Syracuse fell. The Roman general Marcellus ordered that Archimedes be taken alive, recognizing the value of his genius; but, according to the story, Archimedes was killed by an impatient soldier who was peeved that the savant couldn't be bothered to interrupt his calculations. Archimedes died c. 212 BC


3. Archimedes of Syracuse — biography with quotes from Plutrach's bio as well as some of Archimedes' own writings.
4. TV: Mythbusters has on more than one occasion tried to test the story of Archimedes' solar death ray, and have concluded that it wouldn't have worked.

Game and Story Use

  • In a historical or time travel campaign, Archimedes could be an interesting NPC to meet.
  • Time Traveling PCs might be out to rescue Archimedes from the sack of Syracuse
  • Some of Archimedes' inventions could be used as inspiration for a low-tech gadgeteer.
    • Just because Mythbusters says the solar death ray wouldn't work doesn't mean it can't work in your campaign.
  • A giant mechanical claw / crane and a primitive laser would make for a startling greeting when the PCs ship attempts gunboat diplomacy in an unfriendly port.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License