Who Is the Father of Mathematics?

By Staff WriterLast Updated May 27, 2020 7:32:23 PM ET
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Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Greek mathematician Archimedes, who lived from 287 to 212 B.C., was one of the greatest mathematicians in history. His reputation as a lover of mathematics and a problem solver has earned him the nickname the "Father of Mathematics." He invented or developed some of the mechanical systems that we use today, and he lived a life of service to mathematics and his native city-state of Syracuse.

The Life of Archimedes

Archimedes was born in Syracuse, a city in Sicily, which was a Greek colony at the time. Archimedes' father, Phidias, was an astronomer, and he most likely passed his love of math and science on to his son. Archimedes became fascinated with solving mathematical problems throughout his life, and he often drew out equations and plotted graphs on the ground and sometimes even on his stomach with olive oil.

Archimedes spent much of his life in the service of King Hiero II of Syracuse. He solved mathematical problems for the king and developed innovative inventions for the king and his military forces.

Mathematical Innovations

Archimedes' penchant for solving mathematical problems led him to develop some of the important mathematical concepts and ideas that we still use today. One of his key innovations was what he called the "method of exhaustion." This method allowed him to calculate the areas of shapes, including circles. The "method of exhaustion" allowed him to quantify the value of pi, the number that allows us to determine the measurements of a circle.

Archimedes expanded the "method of exhaustion" to measure parabolas and determine the relationship between spheres and cylinders. He also worked with prime numbers, and he was one of the first mathematicians to understand the concept of infinity.

The Invention That Bears His Name

Many people remember Archimedes' name from one invention: Archimedes' screw. This invention essentially allows water to flow upwards. Archimedes' screw consists of a hollow cylinder and a hollow spiral either inside or outside the cylinder. Rotating the screw causes the water to move from its place on a lower plane to a higher one.

Initially, Archimedes applied this invention to bailing water out of a ship, but Archimedes' screw has applications today. Farmers use this method for irrigation in arid places, and wastewater treatment plants apply it to transport water from place to place.

Serving the King

Archimedes' service to King Hiero II of Syracuse led to some other important inventions. Archimedes developed the pulley system to help the king's sailors move heavy objects up and down the levels of their ships. He also invented the catapult to make it more difficult for the Roman general Marcellus to invade Sicily, and he developed the grappling hook as well.

Archimedes reportedly told King Hiero, "Give me a long enough lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth." The king challenged Archimedes to prove his boast, and he launched a large ship using a massive lever he developed.

Archimedes' Principle

The innovation that probably most benefited King Hiero came to Archimedes in the bath. The king received the gift of a gold crown that he doubted was completely golden. Archimedes observed the movement of the water as he entered the bath, and he realized he could determine the weight of the crown by submerging it.

Archimedes became so excited about his discovery that he leaped from the tub and shouted, "Eureka, Eureka!" as he ran through town, forgetting that he was naked. 

Legends of Archimedes' Death

Once the Roman general Marcellus was able to invade Sicily, one of his soldiers killed Archimedes. That's the only fact that historians know, but several legends surround the killing of the mathematician. Some legends say that the soldier killed Archimedes because he mistook the mathematician's tools for weapons or gold while others say that the soldier grew impatient with waiting for Archimedes to finish the problem he was working on.

The most enduring legend ― and maybe the most humorous ― regards Archimedes' reported last words. As the soldier commanded the mathematician to stop working and stepped in the area where he was solving a problem, Archimedes reportedly said, "Don't disturb my circles."

A Legacy in Math and Science

Scholars consider Archimedes one of the most important and influential mathematicians in history, along with Sir Isaac Newton and Carl Friedrich Gauss, and there are several memorials to Archimedes that relate to math and science. Astronomers have named a crater and a mountain range on the moon after him, as well as an asteroid. The International Mathematical Union gives out an award called the Fields Medal, which features Archimedes on the obverse of the medal, along with a quote from him.