Pappus on mechanics

In the Mathematical Collection, Pappus discusses the study of mechanics. The following extract is taken from Book VIII:-

The science of mechanics, my dear Hermodorus, is not merely useful for many important practical undertakings, but is justly esteemed by philosophers and is diligently pursued by all who are interested in mathematics, since it is fundamentally concerned with the doctrine of nature with special reference to the material composition of the elements in the cosmos. For it examines bodies at rest, their natural tendency, and their locomotion in general, not only assigning causes of natural motion, but devising means of impelling bodies to change their position, contrary to their natures, in a direction away from their natural places. In this the science of mechanics uses theorems suggested to it by a consideration of matter itself.

Now the mechanicians of Hero's school tell us that the science of mechanics consists of a theoretical and a practical part. The theoretical part includes geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and physics, while the practical part consists of metal-working, architecture, carpentry, painting, and the manual activities connected with these arts. One who has had instruction from boyhood in the aforesaid theoretical branches., and has attained skill in the practical arts mentioned, and possesses a quick intelligence, will be, they say, the ablest inventor of mechanical devices and the most competent master-builder. But since it is not generally possible for a person to master so many mathematical branches and at the same time to learn all the aforesaid arts, they advise a person who is desirous of engaging in mechanical work to make use of those special arts which he has mastered for the particular ends for which they are useful.

The most important of the mechanical arts from the point of view of practical utility are the following. (1) The art of the manganarii (machinist), known also, among the ancients, as mechanicians. With their machines they heed only a small force to overcome the natural tendency of large weights and lift them to a height. (2) The art of the makers of engines of war, who are also called mechanicians. They design catapults to fling missiles of stone and iron and the like a considerable distance. (3) The art of the contrivers of machines, properly so-called. For example, they build water-lifting machines by which water is more easily raised from a great depth. (4) The art of those who contrive marvellous devices. They too are called mechanicians by the ancients. Sometimes they employ air pressure, as does Hero in his Pneumatica; sometimes ropes and cables to simulate the motions of living things, e.g., Hero in his works on Automata and Balances; and sometimes they use objects floating on water, e.g., Archimedes in his work On Floating Bodies, or water clocks, e.g., Hero in his treatise on that subject, which is evidently connected with the theory of the sun dial. (5) The art of the sphere makers, who are also considered mechanicians. They construct a model of the heavens. [and operate it] with the help of the uniform circular motion of water.

Now some say that Archimedes of Syracuse mastered the principles and the theory of all these branches. For he is the only man down to our time who brought a versatile genius and understanding to them all, as Geminus the mathematician tells us in his discussion of the relationship of the branches of mathematics. But Carpus of Antioch says somewhere that Archimedes of Syracuse wrote only one book on a mechanical subject, that on sphere-construction, but did not consider any of the other mechanical branches worthy of literary treatment. Now this wonderful man, a man so richly endowed that his name will be celebrated forever by all mankind, is extolled by most people for his achievement in mechanics. But his chief concern was the composition of works dealing with the principal matters of geometric and arithmetic theory, even those parts often held to be least important. Evidently he was so devoted to these branches that he did not permit himself to add to them anything extraneous.

But Carpus and others have made use of geometry as a basis for various arts, and properly so. For in aiding numerous arts geometry is in no wise harmed by the association with them. Since geometry is, so to speak, the mother of these arts, it is not harmed by aiding in the construction of engines or in the work of the master-builder, or by association with geodesy, horology, mechanics, and scene-painting. On the contrary, geometry obviously promotes these arts and is justly honoured and glorified by them.

Such, then, is the nature of mechanics, which is both a science and an art; and such are the parts into which it is divided. Now I consider it well to set forth more concisely, clearly, and rigorously than my predecessors have done, the most important theorems proved geometrically by the old writers on the subject of the motion of heavy bodies, as well as the theorems which I succeeded in discovering for myself. I cite as examples:

1. If a given weight is drawn by a given force on a horizontal plane, to find the force by which the weight will be drawn up a plane inclined to the horizontal at a given angle. This proposition is useful to those mechanicians who construct machines for lifting weights, for by adding a force of men to the force found to be theoretically required they may be confident that the weight will be drawn up;

2. Given two unequal straight lines to find two mean proportionals in continued proportion. By this theorem every solid figure may be augmented or decreased in any given ratio;

3. Given a wheel with a known number of cogs or teeth, to find the diameter of a second wheel to be engaged with the first and having a given number of teeth. This proposition is generally useful and in particular for machine makers in connection with the fitting of cogged wheels.

Each of these propositions will be elucidated in its proper place along with other propositions useful to the master-builder and the mechanician. But first let us discuss those things which have to do with the matter of centres of gravity.

We do not have to discuss at this time what is meant by the heavy and the light, what is the cause of the upward or downward tendency of bodies, and in fact what significance attaches to the terms up and down and by what limits each is bounded. These matters have been treated by Ptolemy in his Mathematica. But we should consider just what we mean by the centre of weight of a given body, for that is the fundamental element in the whole subject of centres of gravity on which depend all the other parts of mechanical theory. For the other theorems in this field can be clear, in my opinion, if this fundamental concept is clear. Now we define the centre of gravity of any given body as a point within the body such that, if we imagine the body to be suspended from that point, the body will be at rest, maintaining its original position without any tendency to turn.

Last Updated August 2006