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ARCHIMEDES AND FRANKLIN.
A LEOTURE DELIVERED BEFORE THE MASSACHUSETTS CHARITABLE MECHANIC ASSO
CIATION, NOVEMBER 29, 1853.
A CHARMING story which has come down to us in reference to the great orator, philosopher, and patriot of ancient Rome, - and which he has not thought it unworthy to tell briefly of himself, in one of his Tusculan Disputations, - may form a not inappropriate introduction to the lecture which I am here this evening to deliver.
While Cicero was quæstor in Sicily, — the first public office which he ever held, and the only one to which he was then eligible, being but just thirty years old, (for the Roman laws required for one of the humblest of the great offices of state the very same age which our American Constitution requires for one of the highest), - he paid a visit to Syracuse, then among the greatest cities of the world.
The magistrates of the city, of course, waited on him at once, to offer their services in showing him the lions of the place, and requested him to specify any thing which he would like particularly to see. Doubtless, they supposed that he would ask immediately to be conducted to some one of their magnificent temples, that he might behold and admire those splendid works of art with which notwithstanding that Marcellus had made it his glory to carry not a few of them away with him for the decoration of the Imperial City — Syracuse still abounded, and which soon after tempted the cupidity, and fell a prey to the rapacity, of the infamous Verres.
Or, haply, they may have thought that he would be curious to see and examine the Ear of Dionysius, as it was called, a huge cavern, cut out of the solid rock in the shape of a human ear, two hundred and fifty feet long and eighty feet high, in which that execrable tyrant confined all persons who came within the range of his suspicion, - and which was so ingeniously contrived and constructed, that Dionysius, by applying his own ear to a small hole, where the sounds were collected as upon a tympanum, could catch every syllable that was uttered in the cavern below, and could deal out his proscription and his vengeance accordingly, upon all who might dare to dispute his authority, or to complain of his cruelty.
Or they may have imagined, perhaps, that he would be impatient to visit at once the sacred fountain of Arethusa, and the seat of those Sicilian Muses whom Virgil so soon after invoked in commencing that most inspired of all uninspired compositions, - which Pope has so nobly paraphrased in his glowing and glorious Eclogue, - the Messiah.
To their great astonishment, however, Cicero's first request was, that they would take him to see the tomb of Archimedes. To his own still greater astonishment, as we may well believe, they told him in reply, that they knew nothing about the tomb of Archimedes, and had no idea where it was to be found ; and they even positively denied that any such tomb was still remaining among them.
But Cicero understood perfectly well what he was talking about. He remembered the exact description of the tomb. He remembered the very verses which had been inscribed on it. He remembered the sphere and the cylinder which Archimedes had himself requested to have wrought upon it, as the chosen emblems of his eventful life. And the great orator forthwith resolved to make search for it himself.
Accordingly, he rambled out into the place of their ancient sepulchres, and, after a careful investigation, he came at last to a spot overgrown with shrubs and bushes, where presently he descried the top of a small column just rising above the branches. Upon this little column the sphere and the cylinder were at length found carved, the inscription was painfully deciphered, and the tomb of Archimedes stood revealed to the reverent homage of the illustrious Roman quæstor.
This was in the year 76 before the birth of our Saviour. Archimedes died about the year 212 before Christ. One hundred and thirty-six years, only, had thus elapsed since the death of this celebrated person, before his tombstone was buried up beneath briers and brambles, and before the place and even the existence of it were forgotten by the magistrates of the very city of which he was so long the proudest ornament in peace, and the most effective defender in war.
What a lesson to human pride, what a commentary on human gratitude, was here! It is an incident almost precisely like that which the admirable and venerable Dr. Watts imagined or imitated, as the topic of one of his most striking and familiar Lyrics :
Theron, amongst his travels, found
For when I feel my virtue fail,
I do not learn, however, that Cicero was cured of his eager vanity and his insatiate love of fame by this “ turn Syracusan tombs. He was then only just at the threshold of his proud career, and he went back to pursue it to its bloody end with unabated zeal, and with an ambition only extinguishable with his life.
And after all, how richly, how surpassingly, was this local ingratitude and neglect made up to the memory of Archimedes himself, by the opportunity which it afforded to the greatest orator of the greatest empire of antiquity, to signalize his appreciation and his admiration of that wonderful genius, by going out personally into the ancient graveyards of Syracuse, and with the robes of office in their newest gloss around him, to search for his tomb and to do honor to his ashes ! The greatest orator of Imperial Rome anticipating the part of Old Mortality upon the gravestone of the great mathematician and mechanic of antiquity! This, surely, is a picture for mechanics in all ages to contemplate, with a proud satisfaction and delight.
In opening a Course of Lectures on the application of Science to Art, under the auspices of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, I have thought that, instead of any vague generalities upon matters and things which they understand already better than I do, a brief notice of that great mathematical and mechanical genius, at whose grave Cicero thought it no scorn to do homage, and who may be taken, in some sort, as the very personification of the idea of Science applied to Art, would not be uninteresting or unwelcome.
You have adopted Archimedes, Mr. President, as your Patron Saint. You have emblazoned his form on your certificate of honorary membership, as I have had the most agreeable opportunity of knowing. Yet it would not be surprising if, to some of those before me at this moment, the details of his story were hardly more familiar than they seem to have been to the people of Syracuse, when Cicero visited them nineteen hundred and twenty-nine years ago, - and as they certainly were to myself, I may add, before I entered on the preparation of this Lecture.
Let me then inquire, for a moment, who this Archimedes was, and what was his title to be thus remembered and reverenced, not merely by the illustrious orator of the Augustan era, but by the American mechanics of the nineteenth century. And in doing this, I may perhaps find occasion to compare his character and his services with those of some one or more of the great inventors and mechanics of our own day and of our own land.
Archimedes was born in the year 287 before the Christian era, in the island of Sicily and city of Syracuse. Of his childhood and early education we know absolutely nothing, and nothing of his family, save that he is stated to have been one of the poor relations of King Hiero, who came to the throne when Archimedes was quite a young man, and of whose royal patronage he
more than repaid whatever measure he may have enjoyed. He is stated, also, to have travelled into Egypt in his youth, and to have been a pupil of Conon, a celebrated Samian astronomer, whose compliment to Berenice, the Queen of Ptolemy Euergetes, will not be in danger of being forgotten, as long as the sparkling constellation to which he gave the name of Coma Berenices, in honor of her golden locks, shall still be seen glittering in our evening sky. I know not what other lady has secured so lofty a renown, until, indeed, the accomplished Maria Mitchell, of Nantucket, wrote her own name upon the golden locks of a comet, discovered by her in 1847.
Neither royal patronage, however, nor the most learned and accomplished tutors of Egypt or of Greece, could have made Archimedes what he was. His was undoubtedly one of those great original minds, which seem to owe little to anybody but their Creator; which come into existence ready trained and furnished for some mighty manifestation, and to which the accidents of life and of condition supply nothing but occasions and opportunities. Pallas springing full-armed from the brain of Jove, is the fabulous and familiar prototype of a class of persons, whose powers and whose productions can be attributed to nothing but a divine genius, and of whom Homer, and Socrates, and Shakspeare, and Sir Isaac Newton, — upon whose statue at Cambridge, in Old England, may be seen the proud inscription, that he surpassed the human race in intellectual power, - will everywhere suggest themselves as examples.
To this order of minds, Archimedes unquestionably belonged. He has been well called, by a French philosopher, “the Homer of Geometry.” It has been said of him by those entitled to pronounce such a judgment, that his theory of the lever was the foundation of statics till the discovery of the composition of forces in the time of Sir Isaac Newton; that no essential addition was made to the principles of the equilibrium of fluids and floating bodies, established by him in his treatise, “ De Insidentibus," till the publication of Stevins's researches on the pressure of fluids in 1608;* and again, “ that he is one of the few men
* Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography. D'Alembert says, that of all the great men of antiquity Archimedes is perhaps the one best entitled to be placed by the side of Homer. — Brit. Encyc. vol. i. p. 4.