Daily Archives: July 15, 2019

Archimedes and his odometer

Archimedes was a Greek mathematician who specialized in measuring space. He was certain that there must be a way to accurately measure how much space is in a circle—area—or how much space is in a sphere or a cylinder—volume (he figured out how to measure volume when he noticed that a certain amount of water spilled out when he got into a bath tub). Archimedes was influenced by other great mathematicians, like Pythagorus and Euclid.

Archimedes invented many wonderful machines, like a screw for drawing up water, or catapults that were used to fight off invading navies. Although we don’t have his plans for it, Archimedes is said to have invented a way to measure distance. This machine is called an odometer.

Archimedes’ odometer operated on the idea that every time a wheel goes around, it travels its own circumference. The odometer adds up those circumferences and marks when the wheel has traveled a mile. In our last post, we showed how a standard Roman chariot wheel goes around 42 times to travel a mile.

We know about Archimedes’ odometer because the Roman military engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80–70 bc – 15 bc), or Vitruvius for short, wrote about it in his 10-volume book De Architectura. Engineers build stuff. As the Roman Empire expanded, the army took along a corps of engineers to build fortifications; siege engines; bridges; tunnels; aqueducts to provide water; and roads. These engineers did such a good job that you can still find Roman bridges, aqueducts and roads today.

Emperor Caesar Augustus wanted to know exactly how big the empire was and decreed that mile markers should be put up along the newly-built roads. Vitruvius decided to build Archimedes’ odometer to accurately measure the miles.

We only know what Vitruvius’ odometer looked like from a fanciful drawing. We don’t know exactly how it worked. Some people, including Leonardo da Vinci, have come up with some pretty good guesses about how it worked. You can see Leonardo’s drawings here—plus, you can even download plans if you’d like to build one yourself! Now that’s cool.

We do know that every time the chariot wheel goes completely around, it moves other gears. The other gears are set up to mark a mile at the 42nd revolution of the chariot wheel. The trick is gear ratio—meaning some gears are bigger, some gears have more teeth. If the gear on the drive shaft has only one tooth and the gear holding the marbles has 42, the marble-gear moves 1/42 of a revolution every time the chariot wheel goes completely around. At the 42nd revolution, a hole with a marble lines up with a hole underneath the gear and the marble drops into a bucket. Each dropped marble represents one mile traveled.



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