You are here

The Heirs of Archimedes: Science and the Art of War through the Age of Enlightenment

MIT Press
Number of Pages: 

Poor Archimedes. If one reads what he actually wrote, one gets the idea that he was a serious mathematician whose interests were mostly theoretical. But the stories everyone remembers are the ones told by Polybius and Plutarch, who tell how Archimedes was the mastermind behind the defense of Syracuse when it was under Roman siege during the second Punic War. Stories are sexier than theorems, I guess.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Archimedes was mainly known as the military engineer who could turn theoretical knowledge into amazing war engines. It is this Archimedes whose "heirs" are discussed in this book, a collection of essays on the relationship between science and war in Renaissance and Early Modern times. The main question, as stated by the editors in their introduction is: "Was Archimedes' integration of scientific knowledge and military power only institutionalized in the twentieth century (as demonstrated by organic chemists in World War I and nuclear physicists in World War II), or was this integration already occurring in the early modern Christian states?" They claim that there has been a "scholarly unwillingness to stomach the idea of a fruitful Archimedean synthesis of scientific theory and military practice during the early modern era." The essays in this book attempt to confront this "unwillingness."

The book has four sections. The essays in the first focus on the invention of gunpowder weaponry. The second deals with the role of mathematics in navigation (actually, they say in "naval power'). The third deals with chemistry and the manufacturing of gunpowder, and the fourth with mathematics and mechanics as tools for military engineering. There is a whiff of anachronism about all this. The editors open their introduction lamenting Voltaire's willingness to "salivate over the prospect of Catherine the Great exterminating the Ottoman Turks." A very modern sensibility seems to have taken over the history here.

The actual essays seem to me more interesting than this setup would suggest. Most of the authors are careful, and often reach negative conclusions about the supposed "Archimedean synthesis of scientific theory and military practice". Those who are interested in the mathematics of this period and its relation to military applications will want to take a look at these essays and their conclusions.

Fernando Q. Gouvêa is editor of MAA Reviews.


Date Received: 
Friday, April 1, 2005
Include In BLL Rating: 
Brett D. Steele and Tamera Dorland, editors
Publication Date: 
Fernando Q. Gouvêa


Brett D. Steele and Tamera Dorland 1

I The Global Development of Gunpowder Weaponry

1 Facing the New Technology: Gunpowder Defenses in Military Architecture before the Trace Italienne, 1350-1500
Kelly DeVries 27

2 The French Reluctance to Adopt Firearms Technology in the Early Modern Period
Frederic J. Baumgartner 73

3 Gunpowder and the Changing Military Order: The Islamic Gunpowder Empires, ca. 1450-ca. 1650
Barton C. Hacker 87

4 Behind the Turkish War Machine: Gunpowder Technology and War Industry in the Ottoman Empire, 1450-1700
Gábor Ágoston 101

II Naval Innovations: Hardware and Software

5 The Mary Rose: A Tale of Two Centuries
Alexzandra Hildred 137

6 Mathematics and Empire: The Military Impulse and the Scientific Revolution
Lesley B. Cormack 181

7 Harriot and Dee on Exploration and Mathematics: Did Scientific Imagery Make for New Scientific Practice?
Amir Alexander 205

8 Charting the Globe and Tracking the Heavens: Navigation and the Sciences in the Early Modern Era
Michael S. Mahoney 221

III Gunpowder Production: The Refinement of Waste

9 The Art and Mystery of Making Gunpowder": The English Experience in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Brenda J. Buchanan 233

10 Chemistry in the War Machine: Saltpeter Production in Eighteenth-Century Sweden
Thomas Kaiserfeld 275

11 Chemistry in the Arsenal: State Regulation and Scientific Methodology of Gunpowder in Eighteenth-Century England and France
Seymour H. Mauskopf 293

IV Military Engineering and Artillery

12 Eighteenth-Century French Fortification Theory after Vauban: The Case of Montalembert
Janis Langins 333

13 Military "Progress" and Newtonian Science in the Age of Enlightenment
Brett D. Steele 361

About the Authors 391
Index 395

Publish Book: 
Modify Date: 
Thursday, December 22, 2005