A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter IX
Greek science of the alexandrian or hellenistic period
Archimedes of Syracuse 
and the foundation of mechanics
We do not know just when Euclid died, but as he was at the height of his fame in the time of Ptolemy I., whose reign ended in the year 285 B.C., it is hardly probable that he was still living when a young man named Archimedes came to Alexandria to study. Archimedes was born in the Greek colony of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, in the year 287 B.C. When he visited Alexandria he probably found Apollonius of Perga, the pupil of Euclid, at the head of the mathematical school there. Just how long Archimedes remained at Alexandria is not known. When he had satisfied his curiosity or completed his studies, he returned to Syracuse and spent his life there, chiefly under the patronage of King Hiero, who seems fully to have appreciated his abilities.

Archimedes was primarily a mathematician. Left to his own devices, he would probably have devoted his entire time to the study of geometrical problems. But King Hiero had discovered that his protege had wonderful mechanical ingenuity, and he made good use of this discovery. Under stress of the king's urgings, the philosopher was led to invent a great variety of mechanical contrivances, some of them most curious ones. Antiquity credited him with the invention of more than forty machines, and it is these, rather than his purely mathematical discoveries, that gave his name popular vogue both among his contemporaries and with posterity. Every one has heard of the screw of Archimedes, through which the paradoxical effect was produced of making water seem to flow up hill. The best idea of this curious mechanism is obtained if one will take in hand an ordinary corkscrew, and imagine this instrument to be changed into a hollow tube, retaining precisely the same shape but increased to some feet in length and to a proportionate diameter. If one will hold the corkscrew in a slanting direction and turn it slowly to the right, supposing that the point dips up a portion of water each time it revolves, one can in imagination follow the flow of that portion of water from spiral to spiral, the water always running downward, of course, yet paradoxically being lifted higher and higher towards the base of the corkscrew, until finally it pours out (in the actual Archimedes' tube) at the top. There is another form of the screw in which a revolving spiral blade operates within a cylinder, but the principle is precisely the same. With either form water may be lifted, by the mere turning of the screw, to any desired height. The ingenious mechanism excited the wonder of the contemporaries of Archimedes, as well it might. More efficient devices have superseded it in modern times, but it still excites the admiration of all who examine it, and its effects seem as paradoxical as ever.

Some other of the mechanisms of Archimedes have been made known to successive generations of readers through the pages of Polybius and Plutarch. These are the devices through which Archimedes aided King Hiero to ward off the attacks of the Roman general Marcellus, who in the course of the second Punic war laid siege to Syracuse.

Plutarch, in his life of Marcellus, describes the Roman's attack and Archimedes' defence in much detail. Incidentally he tells us also how Archimedes came to make the devices that rendered the siege so famous:

"Marcellus himself, with threescore galleys of five rowers at every bank, well armed and full of all sorts of artillery and fireworks, did assault by sea, and rowed hard to the wall, having made a great engine and device of battery, upon eight galleys chained together, to batter the wall: trusting in the great multitude of his engines of battery, and to all such other necessary provision as he had for wars, as also in his own reputation. But Archimedes made light account of all his devices, as indeed they were nothing comparable to the engines himself had invented. This inventive art to frame instruments and engines (which are called mechanical, or organical, so highly commended and esteemed of all sorts of people) was first set forth by Architas, and by Eudoxus: partly to beautify a little the science of geometry by this fineness, and partly to prove and confirm by material examples and sensible instruments, certain geometrical conclusions, where of a man cannot find out the conceivable demonstrations by enforced reasons and proofs. As that conclusion which instructeth one to search out two lines mean proportional, which cannot be proved by reason demonstrative, and yet notwithstanding is a principle and an accepted ground for many things which are contained in the art of portraiture. Both of them have fashioned it to the workmanship of certain instruments, called mesolabes or mesographs, which serve to find these mean lines proportional, by drawing certain curve lines, and overthwart and oblique sections. But after that Plato was offended with them, and maintained against them, that they did utterly corrupt and disgrace, the worthiness and excellence of geometry, making it to descend from things not comprehensible and without body, unto things sensible and material, and to bring it to a palpable substance, where the vile and base handiwork of man is to be employed: since that time, I say, handicraft, or the art of engines, came to be separated from geometry, and being long time despised by the philosophers, it came to be one of the warlike arts.

"But Archimedes having told King Hiero, his kinsman and friend, that it was possible to remove as great a weight as he would, with as little strength as he listed to put to it: and boasting himself thus (as they report of him) and trusting to the force of his reasons, wherewith he proved this conclusion, that if there were another globe of earth, he was able to remove this of ours, and pass it over to the other: King Hiero wondering to hear him, required him to put his device in execution, and to make him see by experience, some great or heavy weight removed, by little force. So Archimedes caught hold with a book of one of the greatest carects, or hulks of the king (that to draw it to the shore out of the water required a marvellous number of people to go about it, and was hardly to be done so) and put a great number of men more into her, than her ordinary burden: and he himself sitting alone at his ease far off, without any straining at all, drawing the end of an engine with many wheels and pulleys, fair and softly with his hand, made it come as gently and smoothly to him, as it had floated in the sea. The king wondering to see the sight, and knowing by proof the greatness of his art; be prayed him to make him some engines, both to assault and defend, in all manner of sieges and assaults. So Archimedes made him many engines, but King Hiero never occupied any of them, because he reigned the most part of his time in peace without any wars. But this provision and munition of engines, served the Syracusan's turn marvellously at that time: and not only the provision of the engines ready made, but also the engineer and work-master himself, that had invented them.

"Now the Syracusans, seeing themselves assaulted by the Romans, both by sea and by land, were marvellously perplexed, and could not tell what to say, they were so afraid: imagining it was impossible for them to withstand so great an army. But when Archimedes fell to handling his engines, and to set them at liberty, there flew in the air infinite kinds of shot, and marvellous great stones, with an incredible noise and force on the sudden, upon the footmen that came to assault the city by land, bearing down, and tearing in pieces all those which came against them, or in what place soever they lighted, no earthly body being able to resist the violence of so heavy a weight: so that all their ranks were marvellously disordered. And as for the galleys that gave assault by sea, some were sunk with long pieces of timber like unto the yards of ships, whereto they fasten their sails, which were suddenly blown over the walls with force of their engines into their galleys, and so sunk them by their over great weight."

 Polybius describes what was perhaps the most important of these contrivances, which was, he tells us, "a band of iron, hanging by a chain from the beak of a machine, which was used in the following manner. The person who, like a pilot, guided the beak, having let fall the hand, and catched hold of the prow of any vessel, drew down the opposite end of the machine that was on the inside of the walls. And when the vessel was thus raised erect upon its stem, the machine itself was held immovable; but, the chain being suddenly loosened from the beak by the means of pulleys, some of the vessels were thrown upon their sides, others turned with the bottom upwards; and the greatest part, as the prows were plunged from a considerable height into the sea, were filled with water, and all that were on board thrown into tumult and disorder.

"Marcellus was in no small degree embarrassed," Polybius continues, "when he found himself encountered in every attempt by such resistance. He perceived that all his efforts were defeated with loss; and were even derided by the enemy. But, amidst all the anxiety that he suffered, he could not help jesting upon the inventions of Archimedes. This man, said he, employs our ships as buckets to draw water: and boxing about our sackbuts, as if they were unworthy to be associated with him, drives them from his company with disgrace. Such was the success of the siege on the side of the sea."

Subsequently, however, Marcellus took the city by strategy, and Archimedes was killed, contrary, it is said, to the express orders of Marcellus. "Syracuse being taken," says Plutarch, "nothing grieved Marcellus more than the loss of Archimedes. Who, being in his study when the city was taken, busily seeking out by himself the demonstration of some geometrical proposition which he had drawn in figure, and so earnestly occupied therein, as he neither saw nor heard any noise of enemies that ran up and down the city, and much less knew it was taken: he wondered when he saw a soldier by him, that bade him go with him to Marcellus. Notwithstanding, he spake to the soldier, and bade him tarry until he had done his conclusion, and brought it to demonstration: but the soldier being angry with his answer, drew out his sword and killed him. Others say, that the Roman soldier when he came, offered the sword's point to him, to kill him: and that Archimedes when he saw him, prayed him to hold his hand a little, that he might not leave the matter he looked for imperfect, without demonstration. But the soldier making no reckoning of his speculation, killed him presently. It is reported a third way also, saying that certain soldiers met him in the streets going to Marcellus, carrying certain mathematical instruments in a little pretty coffer, as dials for the sun, spheres, and angles, wherewith they measure the greatness of the body of the sun by view: and they supposing he had carried some gold or silver, or other precious jewels in that little coffer, slew him for it. But it is most certain that Marcellus was marvellously sorry for his death, and ever after hated the villain that slew him, as a cursed and execrable person: and how he had made also marvellous much afterwards of Archimedes' kinsmen for his sake."

We are further indebted to Plutarch for a summary of the character and influence of Archimedes, and for an interesting suggestion as to the estimate which the great philosopher put upon the relative importance of his own discoveries. "Notwithstanding Archimedes had such a great mind, and was so profoundly learned, having hidden in him the only treasure and secrets of geometrical inventions: as be would never set forth any book how to make all these warlike engines, which won him at that time the fame and glory, not of man's knowledge, but rather of divine wisdom. But he esteeming all kind of handicraft and invention to make engines, and generally all manner of sciences bringing common commodity by the use of them, to be but vile, beggarly, and mercenary dross: employed his wit and study only to write things, the beauty and subtlety whereof were not mingled anything at all with necessity. For all that he hath written, are geometrical propositions, which are without comparison of any other writings whatsoever: because the subject where of they treat, doth appear by demonstration, the maker gives them the grace and the greatness, and the demonstration proving it so exquisitely, with wonderful reason and facility, as it is not repugnable. For in all geometry are not to be found more profound and difficult matters written, in more plain and simple terms, and by more easy principles, than those which he hath invented. Now some do impute this, to the sharpness of his wit and understanding, which was a natural gift in him: others do refer it to the extreme pains he took, which made these things come so easily from him, that they seemed as if they had been no trouble to him at all. For no man living of himself can devise the demonstration of his propositions, what pains soever he take to seek it: and yet straight so soon as he cometh to declare and open it, every man then imagineth with himself he could have found it out well enough, he can then so plainly make demonstration of the thing he meaneth to show. And therefore that methinks is likely to be true, which they write of him: that he was so ravished and drunk with the sweet enticements of this siren, which as it were lay continually with him, as he forgot his meat and drink, and was careless otherwise of himself, that oftentimes his servants got him against his will to the baths to wash and anoint him: and yet being there, he would ever be drawing out of the geometrical figures, even in the very imbers of the chimney. And while they were anointing of him with oils and sweet savours, with his finger he did draw lines upon his naked body: so far was he taken from himself, and brought into an ecstasy or trance, with the delight he had in the study of geometry, and truly ravished with the love of the Muses. But amongst many notable things he devised, it appeareth, that he most esteemed the demonstration of the proportion between the cylinder (to wit, the round column) and the sphere or globe contained in the same: for he prayed his kinsmen and friends, that after his death they would put a cylinder upon his tomb, containing a massy sphere, with an inscription of the proportion, whereof the continent exceedeth the thing contained."[2]

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.

Curiously enough, the discovery which Archimedes himself is said to have considered the most important of all his innovations is one that seems much less striking. It is the answer to the question, What is the relation in bulk between a sphere and its circumscribing cylinder? Archimedes finds that the ratio is simply two to three. We are not informed as to how he reached his conclusion, but an obvious method would be to immerse a ball in a cylindrical cup. The experiment is one which any one can make for himself, with approximate accuracy, with the aid of a tumbler and a solid rubber ball or a billiard-ball of just the right size. Another geometrical problem which Archimedes solved was the problem as to the size of a triangle which has equal area with a circle; the answer being, a triangle having for its base the circumference of the circle and for its altitude the radius. Archimedes solved also the problem of the relation of the diameter of the circle to its circumference; his answer being a close approximation to the familiar 3.1416, which every tyro in geometry will recall as the equivalent of pi.

Numerous other of the studies of Archimedes having reference to conic sections, properties of curves and spirals, and the like, are too technical to be detailed here. The extent of his mathematical knowledge, however, is suggested by the fact that he computed in great detail the number of grains of sand that would be required to cover the sphere of the sun's orbit, making certain hypothetical assumptions as to the size of the earth and the distance of the sun for the purposes of argument. Mathematicians find his computation peculiarly interesting because it evidences a crude conception of the idea of logarithms. From our present stand-point, the paper in which this calculation is contained has considerable interest because of its assumptions as to celestial mechanics. Thus Archimedes starts out with the preliminary assumption that the circumference of the earth is less than three million stadia. It must be understood that this assumption is purely for the sake of argument. Archimedes expressly states that he takes this number because it is "ten times as large as the earth has been supposed to be by certain investigators." Here, perhaps, the reference is to Eratosthenes, whose measurement of the earth we shall have occasion to revert to in a moment. Continuing, Archimedes asserts that the sun is larger than the earth, and the earth larger than the moon. In this assumption, he says, he is following the opinion of the majority of astronomers. In the third place, Archimedes assumes that the diameter of the sun is not more than thirty times greater than that of the moon. Here he is probably basing his argument upon another set of measurements of Aristarchus, to which, also, we shall presently refer more at length. In reality, his assumption is very far from the truth, since the actual diameter of the sun, as we now know, is something like four hundred times that of the moon. Fourth, the circumference of the sun is greater than one side of the thousand- faced figure inscribed in its orbit. The measurement, it is expressly stated, is based on the measurements of Aristarchus, who makes the diameter of the sun 1/170 of its orbit. Archimedes adds, however, that he himself has measured the angle and that it appears to him to be less than 1/164, and greater than 1/200 part of the orbit. That is to say, reduced to modern terminology, he places the limit of the sun's apparent size between thirty-three minutes and twenty-seven minutes of arc. As the real diameter is thirty-two minutes, this calculation is surprisingly exact, considering the implements then at command. But the honor of first making it must be given to Aristarchus and not to Archimedes.

We need not follow Archimedes to the limits of his incomprehensible numbers of sand-grains. The calculation is chiefly remarkable because it was made before the introduction of the so-called Arabic numerals had simplified mathematical calculations. It will be recalled that the Greeks used letters for numerals, and, having no cipher, they soon found themselves in difficulties when large numbers were involved. The Roman system of numerals simplified the matter somewhat, but the beautiful simplicity of the decimal system did not come into vogue until the Middle Ages, as we shall see. Notwithstanding the difficulties, however, Archimedes followed out his calculations to the piling up of bewildering numbers, which the modern mathematician finds to be the consistent outcome of the problem he had set himself.

But it remains to notice the most interesting feature of this document in which the calculation of the sand- grains is contained. "It was known to me," says Archimedes, "that most astronomers understand by the expression 'world' (universe) a ball of which the centre is the middle point of the earth, and of which the radius is a straight line between the centre of the earth and the sun." Archimedes himself appears to accept this opinion of the majority, - it at least serves as well as the contrary hypothesis for the purpose of his calculation, - but he goes on to say: "Aristarchus of Samos, in his writing against the astronomers, seeks to establish the fact that the world is really very different from this. He holds the opinion that the fixed stars and the sun are immovable and that the earth revolves in a circular line about the sun, the sun being at the centre of this circle." This remarkable bit of testimony establishes beyond question the position of Aristarchus of Samos as the Copernicus of antiquity. We must make further inquiry as to the teachings of the man who had gained such a remarkable insight into the true system of the heavens.

Aristarchus of Samos, the Copernicus of antiquity

It appears that Aristarchus was a contemporary of Archimedes, but the exact dates of his life are not known. He was actively engaged in making astronomical observations in Samos somewhat before the middle of the third century B.C.; in other words, just at the time when the activities of the Alexandrian school were at their height. Hipparchus, at a later day, was enabled to compare his own observations with those made by Aristarchus, and, as we have just seen, his work was well known to so distant a contemporary as Archimedes. Yet the facts of his life are almost a blank for us, and of his writings only a single one has been preserved. That one, however, is a most important and interesting paper on the measurements of the sun and the moon. Unfortunately, this paper gives us no direct clew as to the opinions of Aristarchus concerning the relative positions of the earth and sun. But the testimony of Archimedes as to this is unequivocal, and this testimony is supported by other rumors in themselves less authoritative.

In contemplating this astronomer of Samos, then, we are in the presence of a man who had solved in its essentials the problem of the mechanism of the solar system. It appears from the words of Archimedes that Aristarchus; had propounded his theory in explicit writings. Unquestionably, then, he held to it as a positive doctrine, not as a mere vague guess. We shall show, in a moment, on what grounds he based his opinion. Had his teaching found vogue, the story of science would be very different from what it is. We should then have no tale to tell of a Copernicus coming upon the scene fully seventeen hundred years later with the revolutionary doctrine that our world is not the centre of the universe. We should not have to tell of the persecution of a Bruno or of a Galileo for teaching this doctrine in the seventeenth century of an era which did not begin till two hundred years after the death of Aristarchus. But, as we know, the teaching of the astronomer of Samos did not win its way. The old conservative geocentric doctrine, seemingly so much more in accordance with the every-day observations of mankind, supported by the majority of astronomers with the Peripatetic philosophers at their head, held its place. It found fresh supporters presently among the later Alexandrians, and so fully eclipsed the heliocentric view that we should scarcely know that view had even found an advocate were it not for here and there such a chance record as the phrases we have just quoted from Archimedes. Yet, as we now see, the heliocentric doctrine, which we know to be true, had been thought out and advocated as the correct theory of celestial mechanics by at least one worker of the third century B.C. Such an idea, we may be sure, did not spring into the mind of its originator except as the culmination of a long series of observations and inferences. The precise character of the evolution we perhaps cannot trace, but its broader outlines are open to our observation, and we may not leave so important a topic without at least briefly noting them.

Fully to understand the theory of Aristarchus, we must go back a century or two and recall that as long ago as the time of that other great native of Samos, Pythagoras, the conception had been reached that the earth is in motion. We saw, in dealing with Pythagoras, that we could not be sure as to precisely what he himself taught, but there is no question that the idea of the world's motion became from an early day a so-called Pythagorean doctrine. While all the other philosophers, so far as we know, still believed that the world was flat, the Pythagoreans out in Italy taught that the world is a sphere and that the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies are really due to the actual motion of the earth itself. They did not, however, vault to the conclusion that this true motion of the earth takes place in the form of a circuit about the sun. Instead of that, they conceived the central body of the universe to be a great fire, invisible from the earth, because the inhabited side of the terrestrial ball was turned away from it. The sun, it was held, is but a great mirror, which reflects the light from the central fire. Sun and earth alike revolve about this great fire, each in its own orbit. Between the earth and the central fire there was, curiously enough, supposed to be an invisible earthlike body which was given the name of Anticthon, or counter-earth. This body, itself revolving about the central fire, was supposed to shut off the central light now and again from the sun or from the moon, and thus to account for certain eclipses for which the shadow of the earth did not seem responsible. It was, perhaps, largely to account for such eclipses that the counter-earth was invented. But it is supposed that there was another reason. The Pythagoreans held that there is a peculiar sacredness in the number ten. Just as the Babylonians of the early day and the Hegelian philosophers of a more recent epoch saw a sacred connection between the number seven and the number of planetary bodies, so the Pythagoreans thought that the universe must be arranged in accordance with the number ten. Their count of the heavenly bodies, including the sphere of the fixed stars, seemed to show nine, and the counter-earth supplied the missing body.

The precise genesis and development of this idea cannot now be followed, but that it was prevalent about the fifth century B.C. as a Pythagorean doctrine cannot be questioned. Anaxagoras also is said to have taken account of the hypothetical counter-earth in his explanation of eclipses; though, as we have seen, he probably did not accept that part of the doctrine which held the earth to be a sphere. The names of Philolaus and Heraclides have been linked with certain of these Pythagorean doctrines. Eudoxus, too, who, like the others, lived in Asia Minor in the fourth century B.C., was held to have made special studies of the heavenly spheres and perhaps to have taught that the earth moves. So, too, Nicetas must be named among those whom rumor credited with having taught that the world is in motion. In a word, the evidence, so far as we can garner it from the remaining fragments, tends to show that all along, from the time of the early Pythagoreans, there had been an undercurrent of opinion in the philosophical world which questioned the fixity of the earth; and it would seem that the school of thinkers who tended to accept the revolutionary view centred in Asia Minor, not far from the early home of the founder of the Pythagorean doctrines. It was not strange, then, that the man who was finally to carry these new opinions to their logical conclusion should hail from Samos.

But what was the support which observation could give to this new, strange conception that the heavenly bodies do not in reality move as they seem to move, but that their apparent motion is due to the actual revolution of the earth? It is extremely difficult for any one nowadays to put himself in a mental position to answer this question. We are so accustomed to conceive the solar system as we know it to be, that we are wont to forget how very different it is from what it seems. Yet one needs but to glance up at the sky, and then to glance about one at the solid earth, to grant, on a moment's reflection, that the geocentric idea is of all others the most natural; and that to conceive the sun as the actual Centre of the solar system is an idea which must look for support to some other evidence than that which ordinary observation can give. Such was the view of most of the ancient philosophers, and such continued to be the opinion of the majority of mankind long after the time of Copernicus. We must not forget that even so great an observing astronomer as Tycho Brahe, so late as the seventeenth century, declined to accept the heliocentric theory, though admitting that all the planets except the earth revolve about the sun. We shall see that before the Alexandrian school lost its influence a geocentric scheme had been evolved which fully explained all the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies. All this, then, makes us but wonder the more that the genius of an Aristarchus could give precedence to scientific induction as against the seemingly clear evidence of the senses.

What, then, was the line of scientific induction that led Aristarchus to this wonderful goal? Fortunately, we are able to answer that query, at least in part. Aristarchus gained his evidence through some wonderful measurements. First, he measured the disks of the sun and the moon. This, of course, could in itself give him no clew to the distance of these bodies, and therefore no clew as to their relative size; but in attempting to obtain such a clew he hit upon a wonderful yet altogether simple experiment. It occurred to him that when the moon is precisely dichotomized - that is to say, precisely at the half-the line of vision from the earth to the moon must be precisely at right angles with the line of light passing from the sun to the moon. At this moment, then, the imaginary lines joining the sun, the moon, and the earth, make a right angle triangle. But the properties of the right-angle triangle had long been studied and were well under stood. One acute angle of such a triangle determines the figure of the triangle itself. We have already seen that Thales, the very earliest of the Greek philosophers, measured the distance of a ship at sea by the application of this principle. Now Aristarchus sights the sun in place of Thales' ship, and, sighting the moon at the same time, measures the angle and establishes the shape of his right-angle triangle. This does not tell him the distance of the sun, to be sure, for he does not know the length of his base-line - that is to say, of the line between the moon and the earth. But it does establish the relation of that base-line to the other lines of the triangle; in other words, it tells him the distance of the sun in terms of the moon's distance. As Aristarchus strikes the angle, it shows that the sun is eighteen times as distant as the moon. Now, by comparing the apparent size of the sun with the apparent size of the moon - which, as we have seen, Aristarchus has already measured - he is able to tell us that, the sun is "more than 5832 times, and less than 8000" times larger than the moon; though his measurements, taken by themselves, give no clew to the actual bulk of either body. These conclusions, be it understood, are absolutely valid inferences - nay, demonstrations - from the measurements involved, provided only that these measurements have been correct. Unfortunately, the angle of the triangle we have just seen measured is exceedingly difficult to determine with accuracy, while at the same time, as a moment's reflection will show, it is so large an angle that a very slight deviation from the truth will greatly affect the distance at which its line joins the other side of the triangle. Then again, it is virtually impossible to tell the precise moment when the moon is at half, as the line it gives is not so sharp that we can fix it with absolute accuracy. There is, moreover, another element of error due to the refraction of light by the earth's atmosphere. The experiment was probably made when the sun was near the horizon, at which time, as we now know, but as Aristarchus probably did not suspect, the apparent displacement of the sun's position is considerable; and this displacement, it will be observed, is in the direction to lessen the angle in question.

In point of fact, Aristarchus estimated the angle at eighty-seven degrees. Had his instrument been more precise, and had he been able to take account of all the elements of error, he would have found it eighty-seven degrees and fifty-two minutes. The difference of measurement seems slight; but it sufficed to make the computations differ absurdly from the truth. The sun is really not merely eighteen times but more than two hundred times the distance of the moon, as Wendelein discovered on repeating the experiment of Aristarchus about two thousand years later. Yet this discrepancy does not in the least take away from the validity of the method which Aristarchus employed. Moreover, his conclusion, stated in general terms, was perfectly correct: the sun is many times more distant than the moon and vastly larger than that body. Granted, then, that the moon is, as Aristarchus correctly believed, considerably less in size than the earth, the sun must be enormously larger than the earth; and this is the vital inference which, more than any other, must have seemed to Aristarchus to confirm the suspicion that the sun and not the earth is the centre of the planetary system. It seemed to him inherently improbable that an enormously large body like the sun should revolve about a small one such as the earth. And again, it seemed inconceivable that a body so distant as the sun should whirl through space so rapidly as to make the circuit of its orbit in twenty- four hours. But, on the other hand, that a small body like the earth should revolve about the gigantic sun seemed inherently probable. This proposition granted, the rotation of the earth on its axis follows as a necessary consequence in explanation of the seeming motion of the stars. Here, then, was the heliocentric doctrine reduced to a virtual demonstration by Aristarchus of Samos, somewhere about the middle of the third century B.C.

It must be understood that in following out the, steps of reasoning by which we suppose Aristarchus to have reached so remarkable a conclusion, we have to some extent guessed at the processes of thought- development; for no line of explication written by the astronomer himself on this particular point has come down to us. There does exist, however, as we have already stated, a very remarkable treatise by Aristarchus on the Size and Distance of the Sun and the Moon, which so clearly suggests the methods of reasoning of the great astronomer, and so explicitly cites the results of his measurements, that we cannot well pass it by without quoting from it at some length. It is certainly one of the most remarkable scientific documents of antiquity. As already noted, the heliocentric doctrine is not expressly stated here. It seems to be tacitly implied throughout, but it is not a necessary consequence of any of the propositions expressly stated. These propositions have to do with certain observations and measurements and what Aristarchus believes to be inevitable deductions from them, and he perhaps did not wish to have these deductions challenged through associating them with a theory which his contemporaries did not accept. In a word, the paper of Aristarchus is a rigidly scientific document unvitiated by association with any theorizings that are not directly germane to its central theme. The treatise opens with certain hypotheses as follows:

"First. The moon receives its light from the sun.

"Second. The earth may be considered as a point and as the centre of the orbit of the moon.

"Third. When the moon appears to us dichotomized it offers to our view a great circle [or actual meridian] of its circumference which divides the illuminated part from the dark part.

"Fourth. When the moon appears dichotomized its distance from the sun is less than a quarter of the circumference [of its orbit] by a thirtieth part of that quarter."

That is to say, in modern terminology, the moon at this time lacks three degrees (one thirtieth of ninety degrees) of being at right angles with the line of the sun as viewed from the earth; or, stated otherwise, the angular distance of the moon from the sun as viewed from the earth is at this time eighty-seven degrees - this being, as we have already observed, the fundamental measurement upon which so much depends. We may fairly suppose that some previous paper of Aristarchus's has detailed the measurement which here is taken for granted, yet which of course could depend solely on observation.

"Fifth. The diameter of the shadow [cast by the earth at the point where the moon's orbit cuts that shadow when the moon is eclipsed] is double the diameter of the moon."

Here again a knowledge of previously established measurements is taken for granted; but, indeed, this is the case throughout the treatise.

"Sixth. The arc subtended in the sky by the moon is a fifteenth part of a sign" of the zodiac; that is to say, since there are twenty-four, signs in the zodiac, one-fifteenth of one twenty-fourth, or in modern terminology, one degree of arc. This is Aristarchus's measurement of the moon to which we have already referred when speaking of the measurements of Archimedes.

"If we admit these six hypotheses," Aristarchus continues, "it follows that the sun is more than eighteen times more distant from the earth than is the moon, and that it is less than twenty times more distant, and that the diameter of the sun bears a corresponding relation to the diameter of the moon; which is proved by the position of the moon when dichotomized. But the ratio of the diameter of the sun to that of the earth is greater than nineteen to three and less than forty-three to six. This is demonstrated by the relation of the distances, by the position [of the moon] in relation to the earth's shadow, and by the fact that the arc subtended by the moon is a fifteenth part of a sign."

Aristarchus follows with nineteen propositions intended to elucidate his hypotheses and to demonstrate his various contentions. These show a singularly clear grasp of geometrical problems and an altogether correct conception of the general relations as to size and position of the earth, the moon, and the sun. His reasoning has to do largely with the shadow cast by the earth and by the moon, and it presupposes a considerable knowledge of the phenomena of eclipses. His first proposition is that "two equal spheres may always be circumscribed in a cylinder; two unequal spheres in a cone of which the apex is found on the side of the smaller sphere; and a straight line joining the centres of these spheres is perpendicular to each of the two circles made by the contact of the surface of the cylinder or of the cone with the spheres."

It will be observed that Aristarchus has in mind here the moon, the earth, and the sun as spheres to be circumscribed within a cone, which cone is made tangible and measurable by the shadows cast by the non-luminous bodies; since, continuing, he clearly states in proposition nine, that "when the sun is totally eclipsed, an observer on the earth's surface is at an apex of a cone comprising the moon and the sun." Various propositions deal with other relations of the shadows which need not detain us since they are not fundamentally important, and we may pass to the final conclusions of Aristarchus, as reached in his propositions ten to nineteen.

Now, since (proposition ten) "the diameter of the sun is more than eighteen times and less than twenty times greater than that of the moon," it follows (proposition eleven) "that the bulk of the sun is to that of the moon in ratio, greater than 5832 to 1, and less than 8000 to 1."

"Proposition sixteen. The diameter of the sun is to the diameter of the earth in greater proportion than nineteen to three, and less than forty-three to six.

"Proposition seventeen. The bulk of the sun is to that of the earth in greater proportion than 6859 to 27, and less than 79,507 to 216.

"Proposition eighteen. The diameter of the earth is to the diameter of the moon in greater proportion than 108 to 43 and less than 60 to 19.

"Proposition nineteen. The bulk of the earth is to that of the moon in greater proportion than 1,259,712 to 79,507 and less than 20,000 to 6859."

Such then are the more important conclusions of this very remarkable paper - a paper which seems to have interest to the successors of Aristarchus generation after generation, since this alone of all the writings of the great astronomer has been preserved. How widely the exact results of the measurements of Aristarchus, differ from the truth, we have pointed out as we progressed. But let it be repeated that this detracts little from the credit of the astronomer who had such clear and correct conceptions of the relations of the heavenly bodies and who invented such correct methods of measurement. Let it be particularly observed, however, that all the conclusions of Aristarchus are stated in relative terms. He nowhere attempts to estimate the precise size of the earth, of the moon, or of the sun, or the actual distance of one of these bodies from another. The obvious reason for this is that no data were at hand from which to make such precise measurements. Had Aristarchus known the size of any one of the bodies in question, he might readily, of course, have determined the size of the others by the mere application of his relative scale; but he had no means of determining the size of the earth, and to this extent his system of measurements remained imperfect. Where Aristarchus halted, however, another worker of the same period took the task in hand and by an altogether wonderful measurement determined the size of the earth, and thus brought the scientific theories of cosmology to their climax. This worthy supplementor of the work of Aristarchus was Eratosthenes of Alexandria.

 Eratosthenes, "the surveyor of the world"

An altogether remarkable man was this native of Cyrene, who came to Alexandria from Athens to be the chief librarian of Ptolemy Euergetes. He was not merely an astronomer and a geographer, but a poet and grammarian as well. His contemporaries jestingly called him Beta the Second, because he was said through the universality of his attainments to be "a second Plato" in philosophy, "a second Thales" in astronomy, and so on throughout the list. He was also called the "surveyor of the world," in recognition of his services to geography. Hipparchus said of him, perhaps half jestingly, that he had studied astronomy as a geographer and geography as an astronomer. It is not quite clear whether the epigram was meant as compliment or as criticism. Similar phrases have been turned against men of versatile talent in every age. Be that as it may, Eratosthenes passed into history as the father of scientific geography and of scientific chronology; as the astronomer who first measured the obliquity of the ecliptic; and as the inventive genius who performed the astounding feat of measuring the size of the globe on which we live at a time when only a relatively small portion of that globe's surface was known to civilized man. It is no discredit to approach astronomy as a geographer and geography as an astronomer if the results are such as these. What Eratosthenes really did was to approach both astronomy and geography from two seemingly divergent points of attack - namely, from the stand-point of the geometer and also from that of the poet. Perhaps no man in any age has brought a better combination of observing and imaginative faculties to the aid of science.

Nearly all the discoveries of Eratosthenes are associated with observations of the shadows cast by the sun. We have seen that, in the study of the heavenly bodies, much depends on the measurement of angles. Now the easiest way in which angles can be measured, when solar angles are in question, is to pay attention, not to the sun itself, but to the shadow that it casts. We saw that Thales made some remarkable measurements with the aid of shadows, and we have more than once referred to the gnomon, which is the most primitive, but which long remained the most important, of astronomical instruments. It is believed that Eratosthenes invented an important modification of the gnomon which was elaborated afterwards by Hipparchus and called an armillary sphere. This consists essentially of a small gnomon, or perpendicular post, attached to a plane representing the earth's equator and a hemisphere in imitation of the earth's surface. With the aid of this, the shadow cast by the sun could be very accurately measured. It involves no new principle. Every perpendicular post or object of any kind placed in the sunlight casts a shadow from which the angles now in question could be roughly measured. The province of the armillary sphere was to make these measurements extremely accurate.

With the aid of this implement, Eratosthenes carefully noted the longest and the shortest shadows cast by the gnomon - that is to say, the shadows cast on the days of the solstices. He found that the distance between the tropics thus measured represented 47 degrees 42' 39" of arc. One-half of this, or 23 degrees 5,' 19.5", represented the obliquity of the ecliptic - that is to say, the angle by which the earth's axis dipped from the perpendicular with reference to its orbit. This was a most important observation, and because of its accuracy it has served modern astronomers well for comparison in measuring the trifling change due to our earth's slow, swinging wobble. For the earth, be it understood, like a great top spinning through space, holds its position with relative but not quite absolute fixity. It must not be supposed, however, that the experiment in question was quite new with Eratosthenes. His merit consists rather in the accuracy with which he made his observation than in the novelty of the conception; for it is recorded that Eudoxus, a full century earlier, had remarked the obliquity of the ecliptic. That observer had said that the obliquity corresponded to the side of a pentadecagon, or fifteen-sided figure, which is equivalent in modern phraseology to twenty- four degrees of arc. But so little is known regarding the way in which Eudoxus reached his estimate that the measurement of Eratosthenes is usually spoken of as if it were the first effort of the kind.

Much more striking, at least in its appeal to the popular imagination, was that other great feat which Eratosthenes performed with the aid of his perfected gnomon - the measurement of the earth itself. When we reflect that at this period the portion of the earth open to observation extended only from the Straits of Gibraltar on the west to India on the east, and from the North Sea to Upper Egypt, it certainly seems enigmatical - at first thought almost miraculous - that an observer should have been able to measure the entire globe. That he should have accomplished this through observation of nothing more than a tiny bit of Egyptian territory and a glimpse of the sun's shadow makes it seem but the more wonderful. Yet the method of Eratosthenes, like many another enigma, seems simple enough once it is explained. It required but the application of a very elementary knowledge of the geometry of circles, combined with the use of a fact or two from local geography - which detracts nothing from the genius of the man who could reason from such simple premises to so wonderful a conclusion.

Stated in a few words, the experiment of Eratosthenes was this. His geographical studies had taught him that the town of Syene lay directly south of Alexandria, or, as we should say, on the same meridian of latitude. He had learned, further, that Syene lay directly under the tropic, since it was reported that at noon on the day of the summer solstice the gnomon there cast no shadow, while a deep well was illumined to the bottom by the sun. A third item of knowledge, supplied by the surveyors of Ptolemy, made the distance between Syene and Alexandria five thousand stadia. These, then, were the preliminary data required by Eratosthenes. Their significance consists in the fact that here is a measured bit of the earth's arc five thousand stadia in length. If we could find out what angle that bit of arc subtends, a mere matter of multiplication would give us the size of the earth. But how determine this all-important number? The answer came through reflection on the relations of concentric circles. If you draw any number of circles, of whatever size, about a given centre, a pair of radii drawn from that centre will cut arcs of the same relative size from all the circles. One circle may be so small that the actual arc subtended by the radii in a given case may be but an inch in length, while another circle is so large that its corresponding are is measured in millions of miles; but in each case the same number of so-called degrees will represent the relation of each arc to its circumference. Now, Eratosthenes knew, as just stated, that the sun, when on the meridian on the day of the summer solstice, was directly over the town of Syene. This meant that at that moment a radius of the earth projected from Syene would point directly towards the sun. Meanwhile, of course, the zenith would represent the projection of the radius of the earth passing through Alexandria. All that was required, then, was to measure, at Alexandria, the angular distance of the sun from the zenith at noon on the day of the solstice to secure an approximate measurement of the arc of the sun's circumference, corresponding to the arc of the earth's surface represented by the measured distance between Alexandria and Syene.

The reader will observe that the measurement could not be absolutely accurate, because it is made from the surface of the earth, and not from the earth's centre, but the size of the earth is so insignificant in comparison with the distance of the sun that this slight discrepancy could be disregarded.

The way in which Eratosthenes measured this angle was very simple. He merely measured the angle of the shadow which his perpendicular gnomon at Alexandria cast at mid-day on the day of the solstice, when, as already noted, the sun was directly perpendicular at Syene. Now a glance at the diagram will make it clear that the measurement of this angle of the shadow is merely a convenient means of determining the precisely equal opposite angle subtending an arc of an imaginary circle passing through the sun; the are which, as already explained, corresponds with the arc of the earth's surface represented by the distance between Alexandria and Syene. He found this angle to represent 7 degrees 12', or one-fiftieth of the circle. Five thousand stadia, then, represent one-fiftieth of the earth's circumference; the entire circumference being, therefore, 250,000 stadia. Unfortunately, we do not know which one of the various measurements used in antiquity is represented by the stadia of Eratosthenes. According to the researches of Lepsius, however, the stadium in question represented 180 meters, and this would make the earth, according to the measurement of Eratosthenes, about twenty-eight thousand miles in circumference, an answer sufficiently exact to justify the wonder which the experiment excited in antiquity, and the admiration with which it has ever since been regarded.


FIG. 1. AF is a gnomon at Alexandria; SB a gnomon at Svene; IS and JK represent the sun's rays. The angle actually measured by Eratosthenes is KFA, as determined by the shadow cast by the gnomon AF. This angle is equal to the opposite angle JFL, which measures the sun's distance from the zenith; and which is also equal to the angle AES - to determine the Size of which is the real object of the entire measurement.

FIG. 2 shows the form of the gnomon actually employed in antiquity. The hemisphere KA being marked with a scale, it is obvious that in actual practice Eratosthenes required only to set his gnomon in the sunlight at the proper moment, and read off the answer to his problem at a glance. The simplicity of the method makes the result seem all the more wonderful.}

Of course it is the method, and not its details or its exact results, that excites our interest. And beyond question the method was an admirable one. Its result, however, could not have been absolutely accurate, because, while correct in principle, its data were defective. In point of fact Syene did not lie precisely on the same meridian as Alexandria, neither did it lie exactly on the tropic. Here, then, are two elements of inaccuracy. Moreover, it is doubtful whether Eratosthenes made allowance, as he should have done, for the semi-diameter of the sun in measuring the angle of the shadow. But these are mere details, scarcely worthy of mention from our present stand-point. What perhaps is deserving of more attention is the fact that this epoch-making measurement of Eratosthenes may not have been the first one to be made. A passage of Aristotle records that the size of the earth was said to be 400,000 stadia. Some commentators have thought that Aristotle merely referred to the area of the inhabited portion of the earth and not to the circumference of the earth itself, but his words seem doubtfully susceptible of this interpretation; and if he meant, as his words seem to imply, that philosophers of his day had a tolerably precise idea of the globe, we must assume that this idea was based upon some sort of measurement. The recorded size, 400,000 stadia, is a sufficient approximation to the truth to suggest something more than a mere unsupported guess. Now, since Aristotle died more than fifty years before Eratosthenes was born, his report as to the alleged size of the earth certainly has a suggestiveness that cannot be overlooked; but it arouses speculations without giving an inkling as to their solution. If Eratosthenes had a precursor as an earth-measurer, no hint or rumor has come down to us that would enable us to guess who that precursor may have been. His personality is as deeply enveloped in the mists of the past as are the personalities of the great prehistoric discoverers. For the purpose of the historian, Eratosthenes must stand as the inventor of the method with which his name is associated, and as the first man of whom we can say with certainty that he measured the size of the earth. Right worthily, then, had the Alexandrian philosopher won his proud title of "surveyor of the world."

 Hipparchus, "the lover of truth"

Eratosthenes outlived most of his great contemporaries. He saw the turning of that first and greatest century of Alexandrian science, the third century before our era. He died in the year 196 B.C., having, it is said, starved himself to death to escape the miseries of blindness; - to the measurer of shadows, life without light seemed not worth the living. Eratosthenes left no immediate successor. A generation later, however, another great figure appeared in the astronomical world in the person of Hipparchus, a man who, as a technical observer, had perhaps no peer in the ancient world: one who set so high a value upon accuracy of observation as to earn the title of "the lover of truth." Hipparchus was born at Nicaea, in Bithynia, in the year 160 B.C. His life, all too short for the interests of science, ended in the year 125 B.C. The observations of the great astronomer were made chiefly, perhaps entirely, at Rhodes. A misinterpretation of Ptolemy's writings led to the idea that Hipparchus, performed his chief labors in Alexandria, but it is now admitted that there is no evidence for this. Delambre doubted, and most subsequent writers follow him here, whether Hipparchus ever so much as visited Alexandria. In any event there seems to be no question that Rhodes may claim the honor of being the chief site of his activities.

It was Hipparchus whose somewhat equivocal comment on the work of Eratosthenes we have already noted. No counter-charge in kind could be made against the critic himself; he was an astronomer pure and simple. His gift was the gift of accurate observation rather than the gift of imagination. No scientific progress is possible without scientific guessing, but Hipparchus belonged to that class of observers with whom hypothesis is held rigidly subservient to fact. It was not to be expected that his mind would be attracted by the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus. He used the facts and observations gathered by his great predecessor of Samos, but he declined to accept his theories. For him the world was central; his problem was to explain, if he could, the irregularities of motion which sun, moon, and planets showed in their seeming circuits about the earth. Hipparchus had the gnomon of Eratosthenes - doubtless in a perfected form - to aid him, and he soon proved himself a master in its use. For him, as we have said, accuracy was everything; this was the one element that led to all his great successes.

Perhaps his greatest feat was to demonstrate the eccentricity of the sun's seeming orbit. We of to-day, thanks to Keppler and his followers, know that the earth and the other planetary bodies in their circuit about the sun describe an ellipse and not a circle. But in the day of Hipparchus, though the ellipse was recognized as a geometrical figure (it had been described and named along with the parabola and hyperbola by Apollonius of Perga, the pupil of Euclid), yet it would have been the rankest heresy to suggest an elliptical course for any heavenly body. A metaphysical theory, as propounded perhaps by the Pythagoreans but ardently supported by Aristotle, declared that the circle is the perfect figure, and pronounced it inconceivable that the motions of the spheres should be other than circular. This thought dominated the mind of Hipparchus, and so when his careful measurements led him to the discovery that the northward and southward journeyings of the sun did not divide the year into four equal parts, there was nothing open to him but to either assume that the earth does not lie precisely at the centre of the sun's circular orbit or to find some alternative hypothesis.

In point of fact, the sun (reversing the point of view in accordance with modern discoveries) does lie at one focus of the earth's elliptical orbit, and therefore away from the physical centre of that orbit; in other words, the observations of Hipparchus were absolutely accurate. He was quite correct in finding that the sun spends more time on one side of the equator than on the other. When, therefore, he estimated the relative distance of the earth from the geometrical centre of the sun's supposed circular orbit, and spoke of this as the measure of the sun's eccentricity, he propounded a theory in which true data of observation were curiously mingled with a positively inverted theory. That the theory of Hipparchus was absolutely consistent with all the facts of this particular observation is the best evidence that could be given of the difficulties that stood in the way of a true explanation of the mechanism of the heavens.

But it is not merely the sun which was observed to vary in the speed of its orbital progress; the moon and the planets also show curious accelerations and retardations of motion. The moon in particular received most careful attention from Hipparchus. Dominated by his conception of the perfect spheres, he could find but one explanation of the anomalous motions which he observed, and this was to assume that the various heavenly bodies do not fly on in an unvarying arc in their circuit about the earth, but describe minor circles as they go which can be likened to nothing so tangibly as to a light attached to the rim of a wagon-wheel in motion. If such an invisible wheel be imagined as carrying the sun, for example, on its rim, while its invisible hub follows unswervingly the circle of the sun's mean orbit (this wheel, be it understood, lying in the plane of the orbit, not at right- angles to it), then it must be obvious that while the hub remains always at the same distance from the earth, the circling rim will carry the sun nearer the earth, then farther away, and that while it is traversing that portion of the are which brings it towards the earth, the actual forward progress of the sun will be retarded notwithstanding the uniform motion of the hub, just as it will be accelerated in the opposite arc. Now, if we suppose our sun-bearing wheel to turn so slowly that the sun revolves but once about its imaginary hub while the wheel itself is making the entire circuit of the orbit, we shall have accounted for the observed fact that the sun passes more quickly through one-half of the orbit than through the other. Moreover, if we can visualize the process and imagine the sun to have left a visible line of fire behind him throughout the course, we shall see that in reality the two circular motions involved have really resulted in producing an elliptical orbit.

The idea is perhaps made clearer if we picture the actual progress of the lantern attached to the rim of an ordinary cart-wheel. When the cart is drawn forward the lantern is made to revolve in a circle as regards the hub of the wheel, but since that hub is constantly going forward, the actual path described by the lantern is not a circle at all but a waving line. It is precisely the same with the imagined course of the sun in its orbit, only that we view these lines just as we should view the lantern on the wheel if we looked at it from directly above and not from the side. The proof that the sun is describing this waving line, and therefore must be considered as attached to an imaginary wheel, is furnished, as it seemed to Hipparchus, by the observed fact of the sun's varying speed.

That is one way of looking at the matter. It is an hypothesis that explains the observed facts - after a fashion, and indeed a very remarkable fashion. The idea of such an explanation did not originate with Hipparchus. The germs of the thought were as old as the Pythagorean doctrine that the earth revolves about a centre that we cannot see. Eudoxus gave the conception greater tangibility, and may be considered as the father of this doctrine of wheels - epicycles, as they came to be called. Two centuries before the time of Hipparchus he conceived a doctrine of spheres which Aristotle found most interesting, and which served to explain, along the lines we have just followed, the observed motions of the heavenly bodies. Calippus, the reformer of the calendar, is said to have carried an account of this theory to Aristotle. As new irregularities of motion of the sun, moon, and planetary bodies were pointed out, new epicycles were invented. There is no limit to the number of imaginary circles that may be inscribed about an imaginary centre, and if we conceive each one of these circles to have a proper motion of its own, and each one to carry the sun in the line of that motion, except as it is diverted by the other motions - if we can visualize this complex mingling of wheels - we shall certainly be able to imagine the heavenly body which lies at the juncture of all the rims, as being carried forward in as erratic and wobbly a manner as could be desired. In other words, the theory of epicycles will account for all the facts of the observed motions of all the heavenly bodies, but in so doing it fills the universe with a most bewildering network of intersecting circles. Even in the time of Calippus fifty-five of these spheres were computed.

We may well believe that the clear-seeing Aristarchus would look askance at such a complex system of imaginary machinery. But Hipparchus, pre-eminently an observer rather than a theorizer, seems to have been content to accept the theory of epicycles as he found it, though his studies added to its complexities; and Hipparchus was the dominant scientific personality of his century. What he believed became as a law to his immediate successors. His tenets were accepted as final by their great popularizer, Ptolemy, three centuries later; and so the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus passed under a cloud almost at the hour of its dawning, there to remain obscured and forgotten for the long lapse of centuries. A thousand pities that the greatest observing astronomer of antiquity could not, like one of his great precursors, have approached astronomy from the stand-point of geography and poetry. Had he done so, perhaps he might have reflected, like Aristarchus before him, that it seems absurd for our earth to hold the giant sun in thraldom; then perhaps his imagination would have reached out to the heliocentric doctrine, and the cobweb hypothesis of epicycles, with that yet more intangible figment of the perfect circle, might have been wiped away.

But it was not to be. With Aristarchus the scientific imagination had reached its highest flight; but with Hipparchus it was beginning to settle back into regions of foggier atmosphere and narrower horizons. For what, after all, does it matter that Hipparchus should go on to measure the precise length of the year and the apparent size of the moon's disk; that he should make a chart of the heavens showing the place of 1080 stars; even that he should discover the precession of the equinox; - what, after all, is the significance of these details as against the all-essential fact that the greatest scientific authority of his century - the one truly heroic scientific figure of his epoch - should have lent all the forces of his commanding influence to the old, false theory of cosmology, when the true theory had been propounded and when he, perhaps, was the only man in the world who might have substantiated and vitalized that theory? It is easy to overestimate the influence of any single man, and, contrariwise, to underestimate the power of the Zeitgeist. But when we reflect that the doctrines of Hipparchus, as promulgated by Ptolemy, became, as it were, the last word of astronomical science for both the Eastern and Western worlds, and so continued after a thousand years, it is perhaps not too much to say that Hipparchus, "the lover of truth," missed one of the greatest opportunities for the promulgation of truth ever vouchsafed to a devotee of pure science.

But all this, of course, detracts nothing from the merits of Hipparchus as an observing astronomer. A few words more must be said as to his specific discoveries in this field. According to his measurement, the tropic year consists of 365 days, 5 hours, and 49 minutes, varying thus only 12 seconds from the true year, as the modern astronomer estimates it. Yet more remarkable, because of the greater difficulties involved, was Hipparchus's attempt to measure the actual distance of the moon. Aristarchus had made a similar attempt before him. Hipparchus based his computations on studies of the moon in eclipse, and he reached the conclusion that the distance of the moon is equal to 59 radii of the earth (in reality it is 60.27 radii). Here, then, was the measure of the base-line of that famous triangle with which Aristarchus had measured the distance of the sun. Hipparchus must have known of that measurement, since he quotes the work of Aristarchus in other fields. Had he now but repeated the experiment of Aristarchus, with his perfected instruments and his perhaps greater observational skill, he was in position to compute the actual distance of the sun in terms not merely of the moon's distance but of the earth's radius. And now there was the experiment of Eratosthenes to give the length of that radius in precise terms. In other words, Hipparchus might have measured the distance of the sun in stadia. But if he had made the attempt - and, indeed, it is more than likely that he did so - the elements of error in his measurements would still have kept him wide of the true figures.

The chief studies of Hipparchus were directed, as we have seen, towards the sun and the moon, but a phenomenon that occurred in the year 134 B.C. led him for a time to give more particular attention to the fixed stars. The phenomenon in question was the sudden outburst of a new star; a phenomenon which has been repeated now and again, but which is sufficiently rare and sufficiently mysterious to have excited the unusual attention of astronomers in all generations. Modern science offers an explanation of the phenomenon, as we shall see in due course. We do not know that Hipparchus attempted to explain it, but he was led to make a chart of the heavens, probably with the idea of guiding future observers in the observation of new stars. Here again Hipparchus was not altogether an innovator, since a chart showing the brightest stars had been made by Eratosthenes; but the new charts were much elaborated.

The studies of Hipparchus led him to observe the stars chiefly with reference to the meridian rather than with reference to their rising, as had hitherto been the custom. In making these studies of the relative position of the stars, Hipparchus was led to compare his observations with those of the Babylonians, which, it was said, Alexander had caused to be transmitted to Greece. He made use also of the observations of Aristarchus and others of his Greek precursors. The result of his comparisons proved that the sphere of the fixed stars had apparently shifted its position in reference to the plane of the sun's orbit - that is to say, the plane of the ecliptic no longer seemed to cut the sphere of the fixed stars at precisely the point where the two coincided in former centuries. The plane of the ecliptic must therefore be conceived as slowly revolving in such a way as gradually to circumnavigate the heavens. This important phenomenon is described as the precession of the equinoxes.

It is much in question whether this phenomenon was not known to the ancient Egyptian astronomers; but in any event, Hipparchus is to be credited with demonstrating the fact and making it known to the Western world. A further service was rendered theoretical astronomy by Hipparchus through his invention of the planosphere, an instrument for the representation of the mechanism of the heavens. His computations of the properties of the spheres led him also to what was virtually a discovery of the method of trigonometry, giving him, therefore, a high position in the field of mathematics. All in all, then, Hipparchus is a most heroic figure. He may well be considered the greatest star-gazer of antiquity, though he cannot, without injustice to his great precursors, be allowed the title which is sometimes given him of "father of systematic astronomy."

 Ctesibius and Hero: magicians of Alexandria

Just about the time when Hipparchus was working out at Rhodes his puzzles of celestial mechanics, there was a man in Alexandria who was exercising a strangely inventive genius over mechanical problems of another sort; a man who, following the example set by Archimedes a century before, was studying the problems of matter and putting his studies to practical application through the invention of weird devices. The man's name was Ctesibius. We know scarcely more of him than that he lived in Alexandria, probably in the first half of the second century B.C. His antecedents, the place and exact time of his birth and death, are quite unknown. Neither are we quite certain as to the precise range of his studies or the exact number of his discoveries. It appears that he had a pupil named Hero, whose personality, unfortunately, is scarcely less obscure than that of his master, but who wrote a book through which the record of the master's inventions was preserved to posterity. Hero, indeed, wrote several books, though only one of them has been preserved. The ones that are lost bear the following suggestive titles: On the Construction of Slings; On the Construction of Missiles; On the Automaton; On the Method of Lifting Heavy Bodies; On the Dioptric or Spying-tube. The work that remains is called Pneumatics, and so interesting a work it is as to make us doubly regret the loss of its companion volumes. Had these other books been preserved we should doubtless have a clearer insight than is now possible into some at least of the mechanical problems that exercised the minds of the ancient philosophers. The book that remains is chiefly concerned, as its name implies, with the study of gases, or, rather, with the study of a single gas, this being, of course, the air. But it tells us also of certain studies in the dynamics of water that are most interesting, and for the historian of science most important.

Unfortunately, the pupil of Ctesibius, whatever his ingenuity, was a man with a deficient sense of the ethics of science. He tells us in his preface that the object of his book is to record some ingenious discoveries of others, together with additional discoveries of his own, but nowhere in the book itself does he give us the, slightest clew as to where the line is drawn between the old and the new. Once, in discussing the weight of water, he mentions the law of Archimedes regarding a floating body, but this is the only case in which a scientific principle is traced to its source or in which credit is given to any one for a discovery. This is the more to be regretted because Hero has discussed at some length the theories involved in the treatment of his subject. This reticence on the part of Hero, combined with the fact that such somewhat later writers as Pliny and Vitruvius do not mention Hero's name, while they frequently mention the name of his master, Ctesibius, has led modern critics to a somewhat sceptical attitude regarding the position of Hero as an actual discoverer.

The man who would coolly appropriate some discoveries of others under cloak of a mere prefatorial reference was perhaps an expounder rather than an innovator, and had, it is shrewdly suspected, not much of his own to offer. Meanwhile, it is tolerably certain that Ctesibius was the discoverer of the principle of the siphon, of the forcing-pump, and of a pneumatic organ. An examination of Hero's book will show that these are really the chief principles involved in most of the various interesting mechanisms which he describes. We are constrained, then, to believe that the inventive genius who was really responsible for the mechanisms we are about to describe was Ctesibius, the master. Yet we owe a debt of gratitude to Hero, the pupil, for having given wider vogue to these discoveries, and in particular for the discussion of the principles of hydrostatics and pneumatics contained in the introduction to his book. This discussion furnishes us almost our only knowledge as to the progress of Greek philosophers in the field of mechanics since the time of Archimedes.

The main purpose of Hero in his preliminary thesis has to do with the nature of matter, and recalls, therefore, the studies of Anaxagoras and Democritus. Hero, however, approaches his subject from a purely material or practical stand-point. He is an explicit champion of what we nowadays call the molecular theory of matter. "Every body," he tells us, "is composed of minute particles, between which are empty spaces less than these particles of the body. It is, therefore, erroneous to say that there is no vacuum except by the application of force, and that every space is full either of air or water or some other substance. But in proportion as any one of these particles recedes, some other follows it and fills the vacant space; therefore there is no continuous vacuum, except by the application of some force [like suction] - that is to say, an absolute vacuum is never found, except as it is produced artificially." Hero brings forward some thoroughly convincing proofs of the thesis he is maintaining. "If there were no void places between the particles of water," he says, "the rays of light could not penetrate the water; moreover, another liquid, such as wine, could not spread itself through the water, as it is observed to do, were the particles of water absolutely continuous." The latter illustration is one the validity of which appeals as forcibly to the physicists of to-day as it did to Hero. The same is true of the argument drawn from the compressibility of gases. Hero has evidently made a careful study of this subject. He knows that an inverted tube full of air may be immersed in water without becoming wet on the inside, proving that air is a physical substance; but he knows also that this same air may be caused to expand to a much greater bulk by the application of heat, or may, on the other hand, be condensed by pressure, in which case, as he is well aware, the air exerts force in the attempt to regain its normal bulk. But, he argues, surely we are not to believe that the particles of air expand to fill all the space when the bulk of air as a whole expands under the influence of heat; nor can we conceive that the particles of normal air are in actual contact, else we should not be able to compress the air. Hence his conclusion, which, as we have seen, he makes general in its application to all matter, that there are spaces, or, as he calls them, vacua, between the particles that go to make up all substances, whether liquid, solid, or gaseous.

Here, clearly enough, was the idea of the "atomic" nature of matter accepted as a fundamental notion. The argumentative attitude assumed by Hero shows that the doctrine could not be expected to go unchallenged. But, on the other hand, there is nothing in his phrasing to suggest an intention to claim originality for any phase of the doctrine. We may infer that in the three hundred years that had elapsed since the time of Anaxagoras, that philosopher's idea of the molecular nature of matter had gained fairly wide currency. As to the expansive power of gas, which Hero describes at some length without giving us a clew to his authorities, we may assume that Ctesibius was an original worker, yet the general facts involved were doubtless much older than his day. Hero, for example, tells us of the cupping-glass used by physicians, which he says is made into a vacuum by burning up the air in it; but this apparatus had probably been long in use, and Hero mentions it not in order to describe the ordinary cupping-glass which is referred to, but a modification of it. He refers to the old form as if it were something familiar to all.

Again, we know that Empedocles studied the pressure of the air in the fifth century B.C., and discovered that it would support a column of water in a closed tube, so this phase of the subject is not new. But there is no hint anywhere before this work of Hero of a clear understanding that the expansive properties of the air when compressed, or when heated, may be made available as a motor power. Hero, however, has the clearest notions on the subject and puts them to the practical test of experiment. Thus he constructs numerous mechanisms in which the expansive power of air under pressure is made to do work, and others in which the same end is accomplished through the expansive power of heated air. For example, the doors of a temple are made to swing open automatically when a fire is lighted on a distant altar, closing again when the fire dies out - effects which must have filled the minds of the pious observers with bewilderment and wonder, serving a most useful purpose for the priests, who alone, we may assume, were in the secret. There were two methods by which this apparatus was worked. In one the heated air pressed on the water in a close retort connected with the altar, forcing water out of the retort into a bucket, which by its weight applied a force through pulleys and ropes that turned the standards on which the temple doors revolved. When the fire died down the air contracted, the water was siphoned back from the bucket, which, being thus lightened, let the doors close again through the action of an ordinary weight. The other method was a slight modification, in which the retort of water was dispensed with and a leather sack like a large football substitued. The ropes and pulleys were connected with this sack, which exerted a pull when the hot air expanded, and which collapsed and thus relaxed its strain when the air cooled. A glance at the illustrations taken from Hero's book will make the details clear.

Other mechanisms utilized a somewhat different combination of weights, pulleys, and siphons, operated by the expansive power of air, unheated but under pressure, such pressure being applied with a force- pump, or by the weight of water running into a closed receptacle. One such mechanism gives us a constant jet of water or perpetual fountain. Another curious application of the principle furnishes us with an elaborate toy, consisting of a group of birds which alternately whistLe or are silent, while an owl seated on a neighboring perch turns towards the birds when their song begins and away from them when it ends. The "singing" of the birds, it must be explained, is produced by the expulsion of air through tiny tubes passing up through their throats from a tank below. The owl is made to turn by a mechanism similar to that which manipulates the temple doors. The pressure is supplied merely by a stream of running water, and the periodical silence of the birds is due to the fact that this pressure is relieved through the automatic siphoning off of the water when it reaches a certain height. The action of the siphon, it may be added, is correctly explained by Hero as due to the greater weight of the water in the longer arm of the bent tube. As before mentioned, the siphon is repeatedly used in these mechanisms of Hero. The diagram will make clear the exact application of it in the present most ingenious mechanism. We may add that the principle of the whistLe was a favorite one of Hero. By the aid of a similar mechanism he brought about the blowing of trumpets when the temple doors were opened, a phenomenon which must greatly have enhanced the mystification. It is possible that this principle was utilized also in connection with statues to produce seemingly supernatural effects. This may be the explanation of the tradition of the speaking statue in the temple of Ammon at Thebes.

{illustration caption = DEVICE FOR CAUSING THE DOORS OF THE TEMPlE TO OPEN WHEN THE FIRE ON THE ALTAR IS LIGHTED (Air heated in the altar F drives water from the closed receptacle H through the tube KL into the bucket M, which descends through gravity, thus opening the doors. When the altar cools, the air contracts, the water is sucked from the bucket, and the weight and pulley close the doors.)}

{illustration caption = THE STEAM-ENGINE OF HERO (The steam generated in the receptacle AB passes through the tube EF into the globe, and escapes through the bent tubes H and K, causing the globe to rotate on the axis LG.)}

 The utilization of the properties of compressed air was not confined, however, exclusively to mere toys, or to produce miraculous effects. The same principle was applied to a practical fire-engine, worked by levers and force-pumps; an apparatus, in short, altogether similar to that still in use in rural districts. A slightly different application of the motive power of expanding air is furnished in a very curious toy called "the dancing figures." In this, air heated in a retort like a miniature altar is allowed to escape through the sides of two pairs of revolving arms precisely like those of the ordinary revolving fountain with which we are accustomed to water our lawns, the revolving arms being attached to a plane on which several pairs of statuettes representing dancers are placed, An even more interesting application of this principle of setting a wheel in motion is furnished in a mechanism which must be considered the earliest of steam-engines. Here, as the name implies, the gas supplying the motive power is actually steam. The apparatus made to revolve is a globe connected with the steam-retort by a tube which serves as one of its axes, the steam escaping from the globe through two bent tubes placed at either end of an equatorial diameter. It does not appear that Hero had any thought of making practical use of this steam- engine. It was merely a curious toy - nothing more. Yet had not the age that succeeded that of Hero been one in which inventive genius was dormant, some one must soon have hit upon the idea that this steam- engine might be improved and made to serve a useful purpose. As the case stands, however, there was no advance made upon the steam motor of Hero for almost two thousand years. And, indeed, when the practical application of steam was made, towards the close of the eighteenth century, it was made probably quite without reference to the experiment of Hero, though knowledge of his toy may perhaps have given a clew to Watt or his predecessors.

 {illustration caption = THE SLOT-MACHINE OF HERO (The coin introduced at A falls on the lever R, and by its weight opens the valve S, permitting the liquid to escape through the invisible tube LM. As the lever tips, the coin slides off and the valve closes. The liquid in tank must of course be kept above F.)}

In recent times there has been a tendency to give to this steam-engine of Hero something more than full meed of appreciation. To be sure, it marked a most important principle in the conception that steam might be used as a motive power, but, except in the demonstration of this principle, the mechanism of Hero was much too primitive to be of any importance. But there is one mechanism described by Hero which was a most explicit anticipation of a device, which presumably soon went out of use, and which was not reinvented until towards the close of the nineteenth century. This was a device which has become familiar in recent times as the penny-in-the-slot machine. When towards the close of the nineteenth century some inventive craftsman hit upon the idea of an automatic machine to supply candy, a box of cigarettes, or a whiff of perfumery, he may or may not have borrowed his idea from the slot-machine of Hero; but in any event, instead of being an innovator he was really two thousand years behind the times, for the slot-machine of Hero is the precise prototype of these modern ones.

The particular function which the mechanism of Hero was destined to fulfil was the distribution of a jet of water, presumably used for sacramental purposes, which was given out automatically when a five- drachma coin was dropped into the slot at the top of the machine. The internal mechanism of the machine was simple enough, consisting merely of a lever operating a valve which was opened by the weight of the coin dropping on the little shelf at the end of the lever, and which closed again when the coin slid off the shelf. The illustration will show how simple this mechanism was. Yet to the worshippers, who probably had entered the temple through doors miraculously opened, and who now witnessed this seemingly intelligent response of a machine, the result must have seemed mystifying enough; and, indeed, for us also, when we consider how relatively crude was the mechanical knowledge of the time, this must seem nothing less than marvellous. As in imagination we walk up to the sacred tank, drop our drachma in the slot, and hold our hand for the spurt of holy-water, can we realize that this is the land of the Pharaohs, not England or America; that the kingdom of the Ptolemies is still at its height; that the republic of Rome is mistress of the world; that all Europe north of the Alps is inhabited solely by barbarians; that Cleopatra and Julius Caesar are yet unborn; that the Christian era has not yet begun? Truly, it seems as if there could be no new thing under the sun...




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.