The Principle of Archimedes

Le principe d’Archimède, René Magritte, 1952


The most widely known anecdote about Archimedes tells of how he invented a method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape. According to Vitruvius, a votive crown for a temple had been made for King Hiero II, who had supplied the pure gold to be used, and Archimedes was asked to determine whether some silver had been substituted by the dishonest goldsmith. Archimedes had to solve the problem without damaging the crown, so he could not melt it down into a regularly shaped body in order to calculate its density. While taking a bath, he noticed that the level of the water in the tub rose as he got in, and realized that this effect could be used to determine the volume of the crown. For practical purposes water is incompressible, so the submerged crown would displace an amount of water equal to its own volume. By dividing the mass of the crown by the volume of water displaced, the density of the crown could be obtained. This density would be lower than that of gold if cheaper and less dense metals had been added. Archimedes then took to the streets naked, so excited by his discovery that he had forgotten to dress, yelling “Eureka!” (Greek: “εὕρηκα,heúrēka!”, meaning “I have found [it]!”). The test was conducted successfully, proving that silver had indeed been mixed in.

The story of the golden crown does not appear in the known works of Archimedes. Moreover, the practicality of the method it describes has been called into question, due to the extreme accuracy with which one would have to measure the water displacement. Archimedes may have instead sought a solution that applied the principle known in hydrostatics as Archimedes’ principle, which he describes in his treatise On Floating Bodies.


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