A Giant Among Men
The primary objective of writing Monster Truck Technology: The Definitive History of Monster Truck Evolution was to recognize many of the individuals whose technological contributions helped pave the way toward the creation of the mechanical wonders we observe in competition today. In addition to the hundreds of individuals highlighted in the book, there are countless others whose efforts regrettably went largely unrecognized. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a particular individual whose contributions were so integral, that it is virtually impossible to envision an alternate scenario without them. In fact, this individual’s contributions were so fundamental in so many areas that I struggled to make references to them in the book without deep-diving into enormous tangential rabbit holes. Therefore, early in the writing process, I felt the need to eventually provide a supplement that focused specifically on this individual’s unfathomable brilliance.
The son of an astronomer mathematician, Archimedes of Syracuse was born in the Greek colony of Sicily in 287 BC. Little is known about his early life but it is believed that at the age of 18 he traveled to Egypt to study at the great Library of Alexandria, considered the largest and most significant repository of knowledge and learning in the ancient world. Housed within its walls were literary works most written on papyrus scrolls estimated to be upwards of one-half million in number, dating as far into antiquity as Sumerian text beginning 3,400 BC and potentially those of lost civilizations dating back even further into pre-history.
Further inspired by his studies at the Library of Alexandra, Archimedes was fascinated by mathematics. Upon returning to Syracuse his fascination turned to obsession as his intensive preoccupation with problem-solving would famously precipitate him to forget to eat or even bathe for days on end. However, the fruits of his mental acuity resulted in the development of world-altering scientific, mathematical, and engineering principles which are so deeply ingrained into our society that today they are simply taken for granted.
Take for example what is today considered a simple challenge, but one which eluded mathematicians for centuries, the calculation of the area of a circle. Relying upon abstract thought alone, Archimedes deduced that if one overlays a right angle triangle over a circle with one side equal in length to the radius of the circle, and another side equal in length to the circle's circumference, the area of the triangle will be exactly equal to the area of that circle. To visualize the brilliant simplicity of this, imagine taking a bicycle wheel and placing a mark on the sidewall at the point at which it contacts the ground. Next, picture a rod equal to the height of the hub placed alongside that mark. Then roll the wheel forward one complete revolution until the mark on the sidewall contacts the ground again. The area of the elongated triangle created between the top of the rod and the start and end marks on the ground is exactly equal to the area of the wheel!
However, to achieve this same feat mathematically was far more challenging. This was made all the more difficult by the fact that in Greek numerology the alphabet was used to represent numbers which significantly constrained their ability to express very small and or very large numbers due to the finite quantity of alphabetical combinations. This limitation led Archimedes to develop the concept of myriads (large numbers which may be combined to create super-numbers similar to how today 1,000 thousands equals one million) and infinitesimals (numbers less than 1, similar to today's decimal system). It had long been recognized that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter was an elusive constant. By calculating the area of 96 eight-sided polygons placed inside a circle, and another 96 outside that circle, Archimedes was able to constrain the equivalent areas to a ratio between 3 1/7th and 3 10/71st. Infinitesimals provided Archimedes with a medium to establish an accurate numerical approximation of that ratio which we today refer to as Pi.
By this point those of you who have read this far are probably asking yourself, what the hell does this have to do with monster trucks? Stay with me on this and I promise it has everything to do with the subject.
Once the calculation of the area of a circle had been solved Archimedes then applied the same method of double contradiction to exhaustion to calculate the volume of a sphere. And this directly relates to his most notorious achievement.
According to legend, Hiero the King of Syracuse believed he had been swindled by an artisan who had been entrusted to create for him a golden crown. The king suspected that the artisan had substituted some of the gold provided with silver and challenged Archimedes to determine if this was in fact true. After intently contemplating the problem for quite some time, Archimedes was finally reluctantly persuaded to bathe and as he stepped into the tub he noticed that the water level rose as he entered until it overflowed onto the floor. This was Archimedes’ famous “Eurika” moment. He visualized that if he was to submerge the irregularly shaped object (the crown) into liquid and measure the volume of fluid it displaced, that volume could then be multiplied by the weight of gold to determine what the crown should weigh if it were in fact solid gold. When this theory was tested, as expected, Hiero’s crown was underweight validating the suspicion that silver (which is a less dense, therefore a lighter material) had been mixed in with the gold.
So here we finally start to see a connection. The relevance begins to reveal itself when it is recognized that the combined principle of hydrostatic equilibrium, otherwise known as displacement, and the ability to calculate the area of a circle and cylinder, are the fundamental basis for the development of the hydraulic steering systems, brakes, and shock absorbers utilized by all modern monster trucks. But Archimedes’ contributions to the monster truck industry did not end there.
As the son of an astronomer, Archimedes applied his vast knowledge of mathematics to create a mechanism to predict the motions of the Earth, Sun, Moon, and the five planets known at that time. As described by Marcus Tullius Cicero, Archimedes’ Planetarium was a sphere which with a single motion simulated the relative speeds and orbits of each of these celestial bodies. Although not described in great detail presumably due to its complexity, it is deduced that the mechanism utilized a series of intermeshing gears arranged in such manner which altered the input speed to that of each individual represented celestial body simultaneously. This principle of gear multiplication came to be known as Epicyclic Gearing and was adopted a century later by Greek mathematician Hipparchus to construct what is today known as the incredible Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s earliest (thus far discovered) analog computer.
Here again, a mechanical principle developed over 2,200 years ago by Archimedes reveals itself as the basis for the development of modern technologies such as the automotive transmission, transfer case, drive axle, and planetary hubs all of which were fundamental to the creation of the monster truck. I believe very few of us ever realized that the term “planetary” which is so much a part of our industry vernacular is actually a reference to the planets of our solar system.
But Archimedes’ contributions to the creation of the monster truck go even far deeper yet.
Archimedes is also credited with the development of the Law of the Lever and the related concept of Center of Mass. In this regard, he is often quoted as stating, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” These directly relate to the creation of mathematical formulas for deriving mechanical advantage, where a force may be multiplied or balanced. The applications of this are so broad and pervasive that they are practically invisible to us today. Archimedes utilized these formulas and principles to develop lifting mechanisms such as hoists, winches, and pulley systems. Other examples of the application of this principle are devices as simple as pry bars, scissors, pliers, toggle switches, and even screws which are simply miniature spiral levers.
His fundamental principles even describe motion ratios such as those derived by cantilevers and swing-arms. In addition to their use in monster trucks and various other motorsport suspension systems ranging from Desert Off-Road to F1, other more pervasive examples of these can be found in the form of anti-sway bar arms and engine valve train rocker arms. As such, many of the tools, equipment, and hardware relied upon for their construction, as well as virtually anything that exhibits motion on a modern monster truck, can in some way be traced back to Archimedes.
So what became of this man whose name most people vaguely recognize? In 214 BC the Romans laid siege to Syracuse, so King Hieronymus relied heavily on the genius of Archimedes, whom he held in very high regard, to develop weapons to help defend the city. This led Archimedes to develop both long and short-range catapults as well as cranes which dropped large boulders on ships that neared the cliffs of the city. Other more fanciful accounts describe the invention of claws that lifted enemy ships out of the ocean and mirrors that directed sunlight to burn them.
So effective were Archimedes' weapons that it took two years for the Romans to finally breach the city walls. By this time Roman General Marcus Claudius Marcellus had come to gain much respect for the brilliance of Archimedes, so much so that when Syracuse was sacked in 212 BC, he ordered everyone killed except for Archimedes who was to be spared and brought back to appear before him to oblige his cooperation.
As the story is told, while the city was being ravaged a Roman soldier kicked in a door to find an elderly man drawing circles on the floor. The soldier ordered the old man to stand and face him but the man did not and instead replied: “'Noli' inquit, 'obsecro, istum disturbare'” (“I beg you, do not disturb these circles.”). This infuriated the soldier who in response plunged his sword into the man’s back striking him dead. So all-consuming was Archimedes’ focus on resolving enigmas that it ultimately cost him his life at the age of 75. Thus was the unfortunate fate of perhaps the most intelligent human being to have ever walked this Earth.
By his application of mathematical formulas to physics challenges, Archimedes quite literally created the fundamental principles for mechanical engineering relied upon by not only the monster truck industry but global society in general. So astounding was his intellect that over 1,800 years after his death, Galileo Galilei, widely considered the father of modern physics and the scientific method is quoted as stating, “Those who read his work realize only too clearly how inferior are all other minds compared with Archimedes.”
Through this commentary, I hope to provide Archimedes with a mere modicum of the respect and recognition he so greatly deserves. For there is virtually not a person on the face of this planet whose life is not affected on a daily basis by this incredible giant among men.
"Transire suum pectus mundoque potiri" (“Rise above oneself and grasp the world”) - Archimedes of Syracuse (287 BC – 212 BC)