When it comes to killing each other, we humans owe ourselves credit for ingenuity. Long before the Christian era, we were designing elaborate and effective instruments of mayhem — although it turns out that the “flaming death ray” attributed to Archimedes wasn’t one of them. I learned about that this week in a story in the Christian Science Monitor. Although that story was about something that Archimedes did not accomplish, it still left me impressed yet again with the genius of people in what to us are ancient times.

Archimedes was born around 287 BC in Siracusa (Syracuse), Sicily, which was a Greek colony at the time. In terms of intellect, he was in the same category as Leonardo, Newton, and Einstein, and he did groundbreaking work in mathematics, astronomy, physics and engineering. Like many of the ancients, Archimedes is the subject of some stories that are either only partly true, possibly true but undocumented, or simply false.

Archimedes' "death ray" directed at a Roman ship

According to one tale, apparently first known in the Middle Ages, Archimedes designed a system in which mirrors were used to direct concentrated beams of sunlight at Roman ships, causing them to catch fire. This supposedly occurred during a siege of Siracusa that lasted from 214 to 212 BC, the Second Punic War. Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier in 212 during that siege.

The Monitor story reports on new findings that debunk the “death ray” story but propose an alternate explanation that, to my mind, is no less impressive.


According to the CSM, studies done at the University of Naples have indicated that it is more likely that Archimedes used — are you ready for this? — steam cannons to fire at the Roman vessels:

“The steam cannons could have fired hollow balls made of clay and filled with something similar to an incendiary chemical mixture known as Greek fire in order to set Roman ships ablaze. A heated cannon barrel would have converted barely more than a tenth of a cup of water (30 grams) into enough steam to hurl the projectiles.”

The story cites some supporting authorities for this idea, including Leonardo Da Vinci, who spent a lot of his own time dreaming up horrible ways for people to kill each other in battle. (See my June 8 blog entry for more on Leonardo’s diabolical side.)

While I’m being a little flippant about this, I never tire of learning about the accomplishments of our forbears in the distant past. I was amused by the headline on the Monitor’s story, which said that Archimedes’ death rays were probably “just a cannon.” Just a cannon – two centuries before the birth of Jesus. Reading about people like Archimedes reminds me of the potential of the human mind — and of how much more I might accomplish with my own if I were to make the effort.

You can read the Monitor’s story by clicking HERE.

Portrait of Archimedes by Domenico Fetti (1620)


Self portrait

By coincidence, I have read biographical works over the past several months about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci. In all three cases, the authors emphasized that these men were motivated by insatiable curiosities to question established “knowledge” and see beneath and beyond it.

The most recent of these books is “Leonardo’s Legacy” by European science writer Stefan Klein.

Although, Dan Brown aside, the mention of Leonardo may evoke in most people’s minds images of paintings and sculptures, Klein covers the broad range of Leonardo’s interests, from human anatomy to hydrodynamics.

Statue of Leonardo, Uffizi, Florence

Klein doesn’t neglect the arts. In fact, I found his discussion of the Mona Lisa enlightening. I am a duffer when it comes to art, and I have never thought seriously about that painting – which appears in so many contexts that it has become a cliche. But Klein’s explanation, for instance, of Leonardo’s use of chiaroscuro to create a lifelike image helped me to look at the portrait with a new perspective. The same is true of the author’s explanation of the painter’s use of light and of the landscape that appears in the background.

Klein also pointed out that Leonardo, who had made careful studies of the muscles and nerves that control facial expressions, created the woman in the “Mona Lisa” with an asymmetrical face in which the emotions expressed on each side are not identical. Here, Leonardo seemed to be anticipating what is now understood about the left and right hemispheres of the brain controlling the right and left sides of the body, respectively. It was one of many examples of how Leonardo applied what he learned in one field to his work in another.

Portrait by Swedish artist Evald Hansen

Leonardo associated with some interesting Renaissance characters, including the  philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli and the warlord Cesare Borgia. Leonardo hired himself out to men like Borgia in order to make a living, and he  earned his keep by providing entertainment and by designing practical devices, including weapons. Klein makes a point of the apparent contradiction between Leonardo’s abhorrence of war and avowed respect for life and his willingness to imagine and at least design on paper the most horrible mechanisms for maiming and killing human beings.

On the other hand, Leonardo’s employment by Borgia was the occasion for creating an astounding map of the Central Italian city of Imola. By Klein’s reckoning, Leonardo and an assistant paced off very street and building in the city, using instruments that Leonardo had invented for that purpose. Leonardo then prepared a realistic view of Imola that appeared as if it were viewed from overhead – an unheard-of concept at that time.

Flying machine design

Among Leonardo’s fixations was the behavior of water, and he spent incalculable hours pursuing it – simply by observing water in nature and also by sketching it alone and including it in his paintings. He studied surface tension and the manner in which water moved through wider and narrower channels. He put to use the knowledge he gained when he designed a lock for a canal in Milan and, in a more remote way, when he studied the manner in which blood flows through the vessels of the body. Klein suggests  that Leonardo may have actually built a model of a heart to reach his conclusions about the movement of blood in the cardiac ventricles –  something that wasn’t scientifically observed until hundreds of years later.

Anatomical drawings

Leonardo was also determined to provide man with the freedom of flight, but Klein explains that this enterprise was doomed to failure because of Leonardo’s incorrect assumption that birds could fly because they flapped their wings. Although Leonardo understood the concept of gliding, he did not deduce that birds kept themselves afloat because of the difference in the speed and pressure of air passing above and below their wings. Given the era in which he was working, however, Leonardo’s conceptual achievements in this area are still remarkable. In fact, Klein describes an experiment in which modern hobbyists built a machine based on one of Leonardo’s designs, but provided it with a rigid wing, and the device was able to fly.

A great deal of Leonardo’s insight – literally and figuratively – came from his work in dissecting cadavers, something that he found repugnant but pursued for the sake of knowledge. Study of anatomy was not unusual among artists at that time, but Leonardo’s desire to understand the component parts of any organism – natural or artificial – took his studies far beyond those of his contemporaries. His study of the body of a centenarian with whom he had been acquainted led him to the conclusion that the man had died because hardened and constricted vessels had retarded the flow of blood, a finding that foreshadowed diagnoses of arteriosclerosis. So thorough were Leonardo’s examinations of the human body that Klein says some of the artist’s anatomical drawings could have been made in the 21st century.

The author  argues that Leonardo’s expansive work was possible because the manner in which he lived gave him a great deal of  freedom to observe and ponder and sketch and tinker. Klein speculates that minds like Leonardo’s still exist but wonders if they can thrive under our highly structured educational systems.

In any event, this very readable book challenges us all by reminding us of the capacity of the human mind, even ours.

Leonardo's "overhead" map of Imola. The roof of each individual house was painted in water colors.