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  • Sailing Ships and Firm Ground:Archimedean Points and Platforms
  • Jocelyn Holland (bio)

It is tempting to see in the life of Archimedes an event that could serve as a foundational moment to the myth of the Archimedean point, where the promised firm point from which to move the earth is itself given a basis and physical context for exposition. As earthbound as Archimedes himself, this foundation is not celestial – not a point in the far reaches of space – but rather terrestrial in nature, located in proximity to the border of land and sea. It is the moment when Archimedes the mathematician launches a half-built ship with the aid of one of his inventions. Further details and further interpretations are open to debate. The ship in question, the Syracusan, seems to have been no ordinary one. The Deipnosophists (literally: “banquet of the learned”) by the third-century writer Athenaeus cites an epigram by Archimelus that celebrates the scale of the great ship in a poem: “Surely it equals Aetna in its height, /Or any isle which rises from the sea…Sure ‘twas the giants’ work, who hoped to reach / By such vast ladder to the heights of heaven. Its topmost mast reaches to the stars; and hides / Its mighty bulwarks ’mid the endless clouds” (Athenaeus 333). Athenaeus confirms that the Syracusan was a world unto itself, complete with baths, horse stalls, sumptuous chambers, and a court of law for the king. Even half-built, it would have been an impressive feat to transfer such a ship from dry dock to the water. Athenaeus records this as well: “And when there was a great inquiry as to the best method of launching it into the sea, Archimedes the mechanician launched it by himself with the aid of a few persons. For having prepared a helix he drew this vessel, enormous as it was, down into the sea” (Athenaeus 329). The Syracusan is a vessel whose symbolic dimensions can neither be overlooked nor overstated, given that the quintessential paradox of the Archimedean point – the hypothetical separation of part and whole – is contained within this construction. Archimedes, the Syracusan, launches the ship, the Syracusan – itself a model of the political and cultural environment in which he inhabits – into the water (again, according to legend), suggesting that a firm point is all he would need to displace the earth itself from its axis into the oceanic depths of the universe. In each case, any claim to an external position is hypothetical: the earthbound Archimedes cannot displace the globe he dwells upon, and the Syracusan who displaces the Syracusan is, redundant as it sounds, still in Syracuse. [End Page 12]

Historians are undecided as to whether the mechanical feat of raising the ship from the water was achieved by a simple machine such as a lever, a complex system of pulleys, another device such as the helix, or if it even occurred at all. Mary Jaeger has examined the available sources and shown just how tenuous the connection between the launching of the Syracusan is to the claim Archimedes may or may not have made about dislodging the earth from its axes, had he just a firm point to rest his lever (see Jaeger). One source that is frequently cited in this context is Plutarch’s Lives. The chapter devoted to the Roman general Marcellus, for example, contains a comparable anecdote in which a ship is pulled into dry-dock rather than launched. Marcellus claims that, after Archimedes boasts to Hiero that “if he were given another world to stand upon, he could move this upon which we live,” he then proved his point by taking a ship that had just docked and dragging it over land: “then sitting at some distance, without any trouble, by gently pulling with his hand the end of a system of pulleys, he dragged it towards him with as smooth and even a motion as if it were passing over the sea” (Plutarch 31). The difficulty of gaining historical purchase regarding the truthfulness of the anecdote mirrors the difficulty in arriving at the fabled point itself. But the peculiar thing is, as far as the history of the Archimedean...


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