Archimedes on mechanical and geometric methods

In the summer of 1906, J L Heiberg, professor of classical philology at the University of Copenhagen, discovered a 10th century manuscript which included Archimedes' work The method. This provides a remarkable insight into how Archimedes discovered many of his results and we will discuss this below once we have given further details of what is in the surviving books. Below we give an extract from the Introduction to The Method in which Archimedes discusses mechanical and geometric methods:-


Archimedes to Eratosthenes greeting.

I sent you on a former occasion some of the theorems discovered by me, merely writing out the enunciations and inviting you to discover the proofs, which at the moment I did not give. The enunciations of the theorems that I sent were as follows.

  1. If in a right prism with a parallelogrammic base a cylinder be inscribed which has its bases in the opposite parallelograms [in fact squares], and its sides [i.e., four generators] on the remaining planes (faces) of the prism, and if through the centre of the circle which is the base of the cylinder and (through) one side of the square in the plane opposite to it a plane be drawn, the plane so drawn will cut off from the cylinder a segment which is bounded by two planes, and the surface of the cylinder, one of the two planes being the plane which has been drawn and the other the plane in which the base of the cylinder is, and the surface being that which is between the said planes; and the segment cut off from the cylinder is one sixth part of the whole prism.

  2. If in a cube a cylinder be inscribed which has its bases in the opposite parallelograms [in fact squares] and touches with its surface the remaining four planes (faces), and if there also be inscribed in the same cube another cylinder which has its bases in other parallelograms and touches with its surface the remaining four planes (faces), then the figure bounded by the surfaces of the cylinders, which is within both cylinders, is two-thirds of the whole cube.
Now these theorems differ in character from those communicated before; for we compared the figures then in question, conoids and spheroids and segments of them, in respect of size, with figures of cones and cylinders: but none of those figures have yet been found to be equal to a solid figure bounded by planes; whereas each of the present figures bounded by two planes and surfaces of cylinders is found to be equal to one of the solid figures which are bounded by planes. The proofs then of these theorems I have written in this book and now send to you. Seeing moreover in you, as I say, an earnest student, a man of considerable eminence in philosophy, and an admirer [of mathematical inquiry], I thought fit to write out for you and explain in detail in the same book the peculiarity of a certain method, by which it will be possible for you to get a start to enable you to investigate some of the problems in mathematics by means of mechanics. This procedure is, I am persuaded, no less useful even for the proof of the theorems themselves; for certain things first became clear to me by a mechanical method, although they had to be demonstrated by geometry afterwards because their investigation by the said method did not furnish an actual demonstration. But it is of course easier, when we have previously acquired, by the method, some knowledge of the questions, to supply the proof than it is to find it without any previous knowledge. This is a reason why, in the case of the theorems the proof of which Eudoxus was the first to discover, namely, that the cone is a third part of the cylinder, and the pyramid of the prism, having the same base and equal height, we should give no small share of the credit to Democritus, who was the first to make the assertion with regard to the said figure though he did not prove it. I am myself in the position of having first made the discovery of the theorem now to be published [by the method indicated], and I deem it necessary to expound the method partly because I have already spoken of it and I do not want to be thought to have uttered vain words, but equally because I am persuaded that it will be of no little service to mathematics; for I apprehend that some, either of my contemporaries or of my successors, will, by means of the method when once established, be able to discover other theorems in addition, which have not yet occurred to me.

First then I will set out the very first theorem that became known to me by means of mechanics, namely, that:

Any segment of a section of a right-angled cone (i.e., a parabola) is four-thirds of the triangle which has the same base and equal height, and after this I will give each of the other theorems investigated by the same method. Then, at the end of the book, I will give the geometrical [proofs of the propositions] ...

[I premise the following propositions that I shall use in the course of the work.]

  1. If from [one magnitude another magnitude be subtracted which has not the same centre of gravity, the centre of gravity of the remainder is found by] producing [the straight line joining the centres of gravity of the whole magnitude and of the subtracted part in the direction of the centre of gravity of the whole] and cutting off from it a length which has to the distance between the said centres of gravity the ratio which the weight of the subtracted magnitude has to the weight of the remainder.

  2. If the centres of gravity of any, number of magnitudes whatever be on the same straight line, the centre of gravity of the magnitude made up of all of them will be on the same straight line.

  3. The centre of gravity of any straight line is the point of bisection of the straight line.

  4. The centre of gravity of any triangle is the point in which the straight lines drawn from the angular points of the triangle to the middle points of the (opposite) sides cut one another.

  5. The centre of gravity of any parallelogram is the point in which the diagonals meet.

  6. The centre of gravity of a circle is the point that is also the centre [of the circle].

  7. The centre of gravity of any cylinder is the point of bisection of the axis.

  8. The centre of gravity of any cone is [the point which divides its axis so that] the portion [adjacent to the vertex is] triple [of the portion adjacent to the base].
[All these propositions have already been] proved [the solution to the problem of the centre of gravity of a cone must be in a work by Archimedes which has not survived]. Besides these I require also the following proposition, which is easily proved:

If in two series of magnitudes those of the first series are, in order, proportional to those of the second series and further] the magnitudes [of the first series], either all or some of them, are in any ratio whatever [to those of a third series], and if the magnitudes of the second series are in the same ratio to the corresponding magnitudes [of a fourth series], then the sum of the magnitudes of the first series has to the sum of the selected magnitudes of the third series the same ratio which the sum of the magnitudes of the second series has to the sum of the (correspondingly) selected magnitudes of the fourth series.


JOC/EFR August 2006

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