“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, September 17, 2004


As many of LI’s readers know, the House refused to renew the ban on automatic weapons. We can now – or soon – buy as many Uzis as we want to.

The ban, we know, was largely symbolic, and contained enough hedges and exceptions that any gun dealer worth his bullets could find his way around them. It is doubtful that gun bans led to the decrease in the murder rate in the 90s. LI’s skepticism about gun control is such that we don’t care, one way or another, about the end of this provision of the Brady law.

The ancient equivalent of the automatic weapon was the polybolos. There’s an interesting rundown on military weaponry, and Archimedes inventions of clever weapons to outwit the Romans, in David Frye’s contribution to the October issue of Military history. He gives a nice survey of the situation in the Mediterranean in 200 BC, when the Romans encountered the resistance of Carthage to their empire building.

“Archimedes was a product of an age like none other in the history of the ancient world. He was born into the Hellenistic era, when Hellenistic culture was spreading rapidly across the Western world. It was an extraordinary period, an age of boundless ambition and audacity, when politicians, artists, writers, philosophers and even mathematicians refused to be held back by the conventions of the past. It was an era, too, of astonishing growth in military technology.

Hellenistic engineers inherited from earlier times a form of the catapult that resembled a large crossbow. They would not remain satisfied with that design for long. Like Hellenistic-era thinkers in every other field, they felt that they should not merely copy but improve the traditional form of things. Recognizing the limitations of the old design, they replaced the bow with two arms that were propelled by springs of twisted rope. Over time, their experimentation with new materials enabled them to fire heavier bolts, and eventually stone balls, over longer distances. Animal sinews and even human hair were pressed into service.

Hellenistic ingenuity was not limited to the search for better torsion springs, however. The Alexandrian inventor Ktesibios developed radically new catapults, one of which was powered by bronze springs, the other by pneumatic pistons. But even his efforts seem primitive compared to the designs of Dionysius of Rhodes. In an effort to improve the rate of artillery fire, Dionysius actually automated several steps (including the locking of the bowstring, the placing of the missile in the groove and the pulling of the trigger) in catapult operation. Those tasks that he did not fully automate he at least speeded up by adding a chain drive. Dionysius' new design was called the polybolos, or multishooter. It was arguably history's first automatic weapon.”

We’ve always found Archimedes a fascinating figure, and the conjunction of Roman expansion and Late Hellenistic culture one of the more unfortunate of history’s coincidences. Rome, with its genius for practicality, rather stifled the flowering of Greek thinking that was built upon a tradition that the West, since the Renaissance, has been trying to restore -- the two centuries after Aristotle. Stoic logic was a victim of the Roman hegemony. And Archimedes, himself, comes down to us as a piecemeal figure, half magus, half the familiar absent minded professor.

Plutarch (who must, bien sur, be read in Sir Thomas North’s translation) gives this account of Archimedes peculiarities:
“For all that he hath written, are geometricall proposicions, which are without comparison of any other writings whatsoever: bicause the subject whereof they treate, doeth appeare by demonstracion, the matter giving them the grace and the greatnes, and the demonstracion proving it so exquisitely, with wonderfull reason and facilitie, as it is not repugnable. For in all Geometry are not to be founde more profounde and difficulte matters wrytten, in more plaine and simple tearmes, and by more easie principles, then those which he hath invented. Now some do impute this to the sharpnes of his wit and understanding, which was a naturall gift in him: other do referre it to the extreame paines he tooke, which made these things come so easily from him, that they seemed as if they had bene no trouble to him at all. For no man livinge of him selfe can devise the demonstracion of his propositions, what paine soever he take to seeke it: and yet straight so soone as he commeth to declare and open it, every man then imagineth with him selfe he could have found it out well enough, he can then so plainly make demonstracion of the thing he meaneth to shew. And therfore that me thinks is like enough to be true, which they write of him: that he was so ravished and dronke with the swete intysements of this Sirene, which as it were lay continually with him, as he forgate his meate and drinke and was careles otherwise of him selfe, that oftentimes his servants got him against his will to the bathes, to washe and annoynt him: and yet being there, he would ever be drawing out of the Geometricall figures, even in the very imbers of the chimney.”

The sweet enticements of the Siren has been many a man's downfall.

Archimedes death is as symbolically significant as Socrates. War, theory and instruments -- the dark matrix out of which capitalism would arise -- are prefigured in this small butchery.

Here’s how Plutarch reports it:

“Syracusa beinge taken, nothinge greved Marcellus more than the losse of Archimedes. Who beinge in his studie when the citie was taken, busily seekinge out by him selfe the demonstracion of some Geometricall proposition which he hadde drawen in figure, and so earnestly occupied therein, as he neither sawe nor hearde any noyse of enemies that ranne uppe and downe the citie, and much lesse knewe it was taken: He wondered when he sawe a souldier by him, that had him go with him to Marcellus. Notwithstandinge, he spake to the souldier, and bad him tary untill he had done his conclusion, and brought it to demonstracion: but the souldier being angry with his aunswer, drew out his sword, and killed him.

Others say, that the Romaine souldier when he came, offered the swords poynt to him, to kill him: and that Archimedes when he saw him, prayed him to hold his hand a litle, that he might not leave the matter he looked for unperfect, without demonstracion. But the souldier makinge no reckening of his speculation, killed him presently. It is reported a third way also, sayinge, that certeine souldiers met him in the streetes going to Marcellus, carying certeine Mathematicall instrumentes in a litle pretie coffer, as dialles for the sunne, Sphaeres and Angles, wherewith they measure the greatnesse of the body of the sunne by viewe: and they supposing he hadde caried some golde or silver or other pretious Juells in that litle coffer, slue him for it. But it is most true, that Marcellus was marvelous sorie for his death, and ever after hated the villen that slue him, as a cursed and execrable persone: and howe he made also marvelous much afterwards of Archimedes kinsemen for his sake.”

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