Archimedes : biography

circa 287 BC – circa 212 BC

Archimedes Palimpsest

The foremost document containing the work of Archimedes is the Archimedes Palimpsest. In 1906, the Danish professor Johan Ludvig Heiberg visited Constantinople and examined a 174-page goatskin parchment of prayers written in the 13th century AD. He discovered that it was a palimpsest, a document with text that had been written over an erased older work. Palimpsests were created by scraping the ink from existing works and reusing them, which was a common practice in the Middle Ages as vellum was expensive. The older works in the palimpsest were identified by scholars as 10th century AD copies of previously unknown treatises by Archimedes. The parchment spent hundreds of years in a monastery library in Constantinople before being sold to a private collector in the 1920s. On October 29, 1998 it was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $2 million at Christie’s in New York. The palimpsest holds seven treatises, including the only surviving copy of On Floating Bodies in the original Greek. It is the only known source of The Method of Mechanical Theorems, referred to by Suidas and thought to have been lost forever. Stomachion was also discovered in the palimpsest, with a more complete analysis of the puzzle than had been found in previous texts. The palimpsest is now stored at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, where it has been subjected to a range of modern tests including the use of ultraviolet and light to read the overwritten text.

The treatises in the Archimedes Palimpsest are: On the Equilibrium of Planes, On Spirals, Measurement of a Circle, On the Sphere and the Cylinder, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion.


The works of Archimedes were written in Doric Greek, the dialect of ancient Syracuse.Encyclopedia of ancient Greece By Wilson, Nigel Guy ISBN 0-7945-0225-3 (2006) The written work of Archimedes has not survived as well as that of Euclid, and seven of his treatises are known to have existed only through references made to them by other authors. Pappus of Alexandria mentions On Sphere-Making and another work on polyhedra, while Theon of Alexandria quotes a remark about refraction from the Catoptrica. During his lifetime, Archimedes made his work known through correspondence with the mathematicians in Alexandria. The writings of Archimedes were collected by the Byzantine architect Isidore of Miletus (c. 530 AD), while commentaries on the works of Archimedes written by Eutocius in the sixth century AD helped to bring his work a wider audience. Archimedes’ work was translated into Arabic by Thābit ibn Qurra (836–901 AD), and Latin by Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114–1187 AD). During the Renaissance, the Editio Princeps (First Edition) was published in Basel in 1544 by Johann Herwagen with the works of Archimedes in Greek and Latin. Around the year 1586 Galileo Galilei invented a hydrostatic balance for weighing metals in air and water after apparently being inspired by the work of Archimedes.

Surviving works

  • On the Equilibrium of Planes (two volumes)
The first book is in fifteen propositions with seven postulates, while the second book is in ten propositions. In this work Archimedes explains the Law of the Lever, stating, "Magnitudes are in equilibrium at distances reciprocally proportional to their weights."
Archimedes uses the principles derived to calculate the areas and centers of gravity of various geometric figures including triangles, parallelograms and parabolas.
  • On the Measurement of a Circle
This is a short work consisting of three propositions. It is written in the form of a correspondence with Dositheus of Pelusium, who was a student of Conon of Samos. In Proposition II, Archimedes gives an approximation of the value of pi (), showing that it is greater than and less than .