Part 1 of Chapter 5 from Archimedes of Syracuse, a Historical Novel

Here’s another chapter form my historical novel, Archimedes of Syracuse. Previously I posted a chapter concerning one of the legends about Archimedes. This chapter is about the legend of Archimedes pulling a ship out of dry dock single handedly.  It’s a little long for a blog, so I’ve broken it down in parts. Archimedes lived in Syracuse on the island of Sicily where he worked for King Hieron, a tyrant. Many of the details of his legends are vague, so in my novel, I tried to fill in logical details. The narrator is Leonardo da Vinci. Enjoy.

 Chapter 5—The Syracuse (1499, Cesare’s Headquarters)

Leonardo retrieves a document out of the chest, and holds it out to Cesare. “In this document Plutarch wrote about Marcellus, but wrote this note about Archimedes.”

Cesare reads aloud, “Archimedes, however, in writing to King Hiero, whose friend and near relative he was, had stated that given the force, any given weight might be moved, and even boasted, we are told, relying on the strength of demonstration, that if there were another earth, by going into it he could remove this. Hiero being struck with amazement at this, and entreating him to make good this problem by actual experiment, and show some great weight moved by a small engine, he fixed according upon a ship of burden out of the King’s arsenal, which could not be drawn out of the dock without great labour and many men; and, loading her with many passengers and a full freight, sitting himself the while far off, with no great endeavor, but only holding the head of the pulley in his hand, and drawing the cords by degrees, he drew the ship in a straight line, as smoothly, and evenly as if she had been in the sea.”


 (249 BCE, in Syracuse)

Archimedes enters the throne room and bows.

“Archimedes, there you are,” says King Hieron. “I have a task for you. King Ptolemy of Alexandria has been a loyal ally, and has supported me in all my efforts. I know that you have been studying floating bodies. I want you to get with Barnacle, and build me the greatest ship ever built.”

“Sire, what type of ship?”

“Well, not a war galley. It will be a gift for King Ptolemy for the feast of his father, the first King of

Alexandria. It must be a fitting gift. I was thinking of a merchant ship, perhaps, but something big. Make it the fastest and biggest ship ever built. I will name it the Syracusia”.

“What do you want built into it?”

“It should be able to out sail any ship afloat. I also want it to be able to defend itself against pirates. You figure out the rest, and do not bore me with the details as you usually do. If it works out, we will see how we can adapt it for other uses. Now go.”

“Your word is law.” Archimedes bows, and leaves the room.


 For the next six months, Barnacle and Archimedes confer daily. At night, Archimedes builds scale models, and tests them in the public bath. Lagus had recommended it as a veiled way to get Archimedes to bathe. While Archimedes is naked, Lagus removes his tunic, and replaces it with a clean one. It becomes a form of daily entertainment for the men of Syracuse to go to the bath about the time that Archimedes is there, and watch him launch his models into the water. Most consider the models mere toys and Archimedes quite mad. Archimedes makes frequent changes, and launches them repeatedly.

Down at the shoreline near the docks, the ship is beginning to take shape. The ship has three masts, which is unheard. Archimedes determines that the wind would easily tip over a normal ship with three masts. Therefore, he has additional rudders, called keels, attached to each side. They are very long, and reach deep into the water. This makes the ship very stable, and reduces the amount of roll at sea. He also widens the ship to increase buoyancy, and enable it to carry a large cargo.

In addition to the three masts, Barnacle finds that he can add another sail merely by using a triangular sail instead of a square one. The triangular sail is anchored on the top to the forward mast, and the other two corners to each side of the bow. Archimedes adds a boom with a triangular sail to the third mast. The bow sail and the new boom sail are tested on one of Barnacle’ other ships with spectacular results. Archimedes also installs a system of pulleys to help the crew to raise the sails quickly.

A unique crane made with beams and pulleys that can load any type of cargo quickly is installed above a cargo hatch. To help bail water during stormy weather, Archimedes builds bilge pumps consisting of large screws inside wooden pipes. One end is anchored in the lower portions of the ship where water normally accumulates, and the other end exits a hole in the side of the ship. Four are installed, two on each side. Each pump is operated by a man walking on the shaft. The pumps are efficient and effective. Barnacle makes sure that only the finest wood and materials are used.

The Syracusia has five banks of rows, if needed, for extra power. It has two towers on each side to ward off pirates. The Syracuse can carry 400 marines in addition to a full cargo and crew. The towers double as platforms for the cargo cranes. There are a dozen rooms amply furnished for the Royal Family, a bath, and even a small temple.

Finally, the day to launch arrives. It is by far the biggest ship ever built. When the workmen try to pull it into the water, it is too heavy for them. More slaves are added but the ship is still too heavy. When the King sees this, he summons Barnacle and Archimedes to his throne room.

 “Archimedes. It is fine looking ship, and I do not want to destroy it or damage it while trying to float it. Perhaps we should dig a trench around it with dikes, and flood it until it floats.”

“Sire, that would take more time, and the winter is almost here,” says Barnacle.

 “I was talking to Archimedes!”

 “Your highness, that is not necessary,” replies Archimedes, coming to Barnacle’s defense. “I have figured out a way to launch the ship.”

“But how? It is too heavy.”

“Sire, there is nothing on earth that cannot be moved. Given another earth, a lever long enough, and enough room, I could move the earth itself by myself.”

“Archimedes, you are a pain in the butt sometimes, but I am not letting you get away with that remark. I want you to show me how you can move that ship by yourself.”

“It is very simple, sire…”

“Don’t tell me. Just do it. I want to have the ship floating in one week, and I want to see you pull it into the water by yourself.”

“Yes, sire. Your word is law.”

 END of Part 1

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