Part 2 of Chapter 5 from Archimedes of Syracuse, a Historical Nove

Here’s Part 2 of a 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. If you missed Part 1, scroll down. 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. Enjoy.

 Four days later, Archimedes informs the King that all was ready for the launch. A large crowd has gathered to watch Archimedes make a fool of himself. On the beach, Barnacle and Archimedes have constructed the apparatus to launch the ship. Archimedes determined that one single rope could not hold the weight of the Syracusia. He attached dozens of ropes to special loopholes along the deck, sides, and masts of the ship. Each rope then passes through a compound pulley. The ropes from each pulley go to another set of compound pulleys. The running ends from these pulleys are wound around a capstan so that only one rope comes off the capstan. The rope then goes to one last set of pulleys. The running end goes to a make shift throne that Archimedes has set down by the shore. The keels are raised.

In front of the Syracusia is a greased ramp shaped much like the bottom of the ship. Every rope and pulley is also greased. It is obvious that if the ship can be positioned on the ramp, it might move to the water under its own weight. Getting it onto the ramp is the challenge. The ship is supported, as it had been during construction, on all sides by large support beams. The support beams are cross braced, and anchored so they will not move as the ship travels. Everything is ready. Barnacle approaches Archimedes.

“Everything is in place and working, Archimedes.”

“Thank you, Barnacle. I think we can start.”

“Before you do, shouldn’t I have the crew get off?” pointing to the crew onboard the ship.

“It won’t be necessary.”

“But it will lighten the load.”

“The amount of weight contributed by the crew is small compared to the weight of the ship. I have already included it in my calculations, and I have even allowed for an extra margin.”

Spitting, “Damn it, Archimedes! You are as stubborn as a sea lion. What if your calculations are just slightly off? Should we take that chance?”

“Barnacle, I have rechecked my calculations, and they are not off. This will work. Why do you still doubt me? I recall the story about when you when you escaped from the Mamertine pirates. Can this be worse?”

“It never happened.”


“I was never captured by pirates.”

“But I thought…”

“It was all a lie. Your grandfather, Leptines, paid me to tell the City Council that I was captured by pirates. He gave me enough money to buy my own ship. Then he gave me the contract to supply grain to the Romans. That is how I started my business, and made my fortune.”

Archimedes notices that Barnacle is looking him straight in the eyes, “Interesting! But what has that have to do with this?”

“Don’t you see, Archimedes? I am between Scylla and Charcoal.”

“I think you mean Charybdis if you intended the monster.”

“You do know the sea monsters, Charybdis and Scylla, who guard the Strait of Messana? If a ship sails to avoid the one, it is attacked by the other.”

“I know of them vaguely.”

“Well, I owe my business and my livelihood to your family and the King. If I do not do this, the King will seize all my ships and goods. If I attempt it but fail, it will be bad for my business. Everyone will take me for a mollusk, and refuse to do business with me. I will be shipwrecked.”

“And if we succeed, you will have more business than you can handle. That is the risk we must take. You are a businessman and a sailor, you surely understand risk. Beside, you are a barnacle not a mollusk.”

Ignoring the last remark, “Yes, I understand risk but I have never taken a risk this great. I prayed to Poseidon this morning. I even prayed to Berenice. If you fail, people will just laugh at you, but I will be ruined.” Spitting onto the sand, “Let’s get it over with.”

“Who is Berenice?”

“I will explain later. Go ahead. My life is in your hands.”

Archimedes asks King Hieron to come, and sit on the throne on the beach. Grudgingly, King Hieron marches to the throne, and sits down, shaking sand out of his sandals.

In a voice so low that only Archimedes can hear, “Archimedes, if you embarrass me in front of my subjects, it will not go well for you.”

“Not to worry, sire.”

Once the King sits down, Archimedes picks up the rope. A hush comes over the crowd as Archimedes pulls the slack out of the rope. Barnacle darts back and forth from one side of the ship to the other checking support beams, ropes, and pulleys. Archimedes pulls one arm’s length of rope, and the capstan begins to rotate, pulling the slack out of the three running ends wrapped around it, but the ship does not budge. Archimedes reaches out his other arm, grips the rope, and pulls. The capstan turns again; pulling the lines between the sets of pulleys taut but the ship stills does not budge. Archimedes pulls again. Finally, the slack in the ropes between the final set of pulley and the ship tighten. The ship still does not stir.

People in the crowd begin to laugh and snicker. Archimedes reaches for another arm’s length of rope and pulls. The capstan turns, all the pulleys rotate, the hemp ropes stretch and vibrate rapidly, but the ship does not move. Barnacle scurries faster around the ship, trips, and falls face first in the sand. The crowd roars with laughter. The King shifts in his seat. Barnacle sits up but remains sitting in the sand, spitting sand out of his mouth. At this point he has done all he can do–the rest is up to Archimedes. Archimedes takes up another arm’s length of rope as all the ropes tighten, and continue to stretch. He pulls again, and this time the ship starts to stir.

It moves slowly at first but as Archimedes continues to pull it picks up speed. The crowd hushes, and pushes closer, not sure if the ship had moved or not. Once the crowd realizes that the ship has, in fact, moved, they start to cheer. The King leaps out of his throne in the excitement. Several times he jumps up and down, and claps his hands. He hugs Archimedes, and slaps him on the back several times.

“We have done it! We have done it!”

”We?” says Barnacle under his breath as he spits into the sand.

“Of course we have, sire,” replies Archimedes. “Here,” handing the rope to the King, “You try.”

The King takes the rope in both hands. Archimedes moves toward the water’s edge.

“No, sire. Try it sitting down on the throne, and just use one hand.”

The King sits down, and takes the rope in one hand. He stares at the rope for a minute. He had expected the tension to be greater but in his hand, it feels not much tighter than the reins of a horse. The crowd grows quiet again in anticipation.

“Pull, sire,” yells Archimedes.

The King pulls the rope toward him. He is astonished that it takes so little effort. The crowd cheers as the ship resumes its journey toward the water. He pulls again, and the crowd cheers louder, picking up the chant, “Pull! Pull!” Encouraged by the crowd, the King pulls one arm’s length after another, faster and faster. One pulley snaps loose, and its ropes go slack but the progress continues. Support beams begin to fall as the ship starts to enter the ramp. Still he pulls, and the crowd cheers. The ship comes up onto the ramp, and begins to slide toward the water under its own weight, but the King keeps pulling the rope. Soon his lap and feet are covered with rope.

The King does not stop until the ship splashes into the water. Crewmembers onboard quickly throw ropes to men on the dock to tie the ship to the moorings. The people of Syracuse have never seen such a feat. The crowd rushes the King and Archimedes, patting them on the back, cheering all the while. Finally, the King raises his arms to silent the crowd. He motions for Archimedes and Barnacle to stand next to him.

“Citizens of Syracuse, today you are witness to the greatness of Syracuse, and the wisdom of Archimedes. This ship shall be called the Syracusia, and it is intended as a great gift to the King of Alexandria. There is none other like it in the world. There is no other city capable of building a ship like this except Syracuse.

There is no other engineer in the world as great as Archimedes. From this day forth, we will believe anything that Archimedes says. When he says it can be done, it will be done. His word is law. We will build a great fleet of merchant ships that will sail the world, and trade with other kingdoms. The admiral of this fleet will be none other than Barnacle. This is a great day for Syracuse!”

The crowd cheers, picks up Archimedes and Barnacle, and carry them back to the palace.

 End of Part 2

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