Posted by: Michael | 01/04/2008

Science Times: Mechanics of rowing, Guy Gugliotta, Prof. Mark Schiefsky: April Fool’s Joke?

I read in the Science Times on the way into work an article by Guy Gugliotta about rowing on Greek and Roman ships:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Consider the galley slave, clad in rags, chained to a hardwood bench and clinging to an oar as long as a three-story flagpole. A burly man with a whip walks back and forth shouting encouragement. You’ve seen the movie.

That galley slave would have known that the rowing stations in the middle of the ship were best, although he might not have known why. That took scholars to figure out. “Think of the oar as a lever,” Prof. Mark Schiefsky of the Harvard classics department said. “Think of the oarlock as a fulcrum, and think of the sea as the weight.”

The longer the lever arm on the rower’s side of the fulcrum, the easier to move the weight. In the middle of the ship, as the rowers knew, the distance from hands to oarlock was longest.

This explanation is given in Problem 4 of the classical Greek treatise “Mechanical Problems,” from the third century B.C., the first known text on the science of mechanics and the first to explain how a lever works. It preceded, by at least a generation, Archimedes’ “On the Equilibrium of Plane Figures,” which presented the first formal proof of the law of the lever.

Dr. Schiefsky teaches Greek and Latin as his day job and reads Thucydides and Sophocles in ancient Greek for fun. He also majored in astronomy as an undergraduate, and about nine years ago, feeling science-deprived, he joined a multinational research endeavor called the Archimedes Project, based at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

I kept trying to visualize why rowers in the middle of the ship had a longer distance from the hands of the rower to the fulcrum. I still do not see any difference in the distance from the hands to the oar lock for the rowers in front, middle or end of the ship.

Here are some images from Engineering in the Ancient World by J. G. Landels:

[Click on thumbnail to see larger image.]

Rowing 1

Rowing 2

I think from these images its obvious where an oarsman sits in relation to the front of the ship does not change the length of the effort arm; what can effect a change in the distance of the effort arm is the distance from the side of the ship where the oarlock [the fulcrum] would be.

My only conclusion is that this article is an April Fool’s joke.

Anyway the article did get me to buy:

Engineering in the Ancient World by J. G. Landels
University of California Press



  1. The article leaves a lot to be answered. Classics professors (even at, gasp!, Harvard) aren’t the best source of info on this sort of thing. For starters, the full length of the oar is the effort arm, as the water — not the oarlock — is the fulcrum (much as with a wheelbarrow). The oarlock, attached to the ship, is part of the load. It goes downhill from there.

  2. You’re right! I was so busy trying to visualize the distance between the gunwale and the rowers hands that I didn’t remember that the fulcrum is not the oarlock!

    Here is a nice url explaining how an oar as a lever works.

    I wonder if the NY Times will get around to explaining their mistake; or MAYBE it was an April Fools Joke.

  3. The April Fools joke, noted this week, continues to be parsed.The false assertion that Greeks al most always began with practical ideas and then proceeded to create theoretical models, as discussed in terms of ARCHIMEDES and mechanics has been repeated far to long. The reverse was true more often than not!

    For example, 2,000 BCE Egyptians and Greeks began with theoretical models, such as a hekat unity (64/64) and created practical mathematics (dividing by any rational numbers) that measured every difference between expected and actual result (in exact quotients and remainders), as the Akhmim Wooden Tablet repoorted, and Archimedes proved his lemma that:

    4A/3 = A + A/4 + A/16 + A/64 + … (infiniite series)

    was exactly measures by:

    4A/3 = A + A/4 + A/12 (finite Egyptian fraction series), the beginning notion of ancient calculus.

    The same theoretical and abstract beginning point was extended to Egyptian farming, allowing absentee landlords to manage from afar, as discussed and linked in the third paragraph of:

    Thank you all for considering these additional Ancient Near East corrections.


    Milo Gardner

  4. Milo, you post to your blog less than I post to mine! They are interesting posts!

    What about the history of zero?

  5. I read the ‘correction’ in the Times and they are still getting it wrong.

    The discussion of levers reminded me of the Leonardo di Vinci exhibit that I saw in the World Financial Center several years ago. It was amazing.



    The average math history book says that zero first arrived in Germany around 1200 AD and slowly was added as a place-holder in our base 10 decimal system, as you know that date was 1585 AD (Stevins, and some say Napier).

    Such a summary omits the Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian practical use of a zero, with the Greek symbol, topped by two dots, finding its way to India, and 800 AD return to the Arab world, and finally to Fibonacci in 1202 AD in the Liber Abaci.

    Zero was well known and used in a wide array of Ancient Near East cultures, and used positional in Mesoamerica, well before Europcentric folks wished ownship of the theoretical properties of zero just 400 years ago.

    Is this the type of review that you were wishing to see?

    Milo Gardner

    ps – my personal blog posts occur when updates to story lines come to light. In the last few weeks my undergrad minor, history of economic thought, was upgraded by linking to the oldest theoretical Western math thread, money and commities, as linked to my Wikipedia page (as cited yesterday)..

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

  7. Hiya! I simply wish to give a huge thumbs up for the good data you’ve here on this post.
    I will probably be coming again to your blog for extra soon.

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