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The Contribution of Alexandria to Mathematics and Engineering



This presentation reviews the significant contributions of the city of Alexandria to the fields of mathematics and engineering.
Prof. Essam M. Wahba
The Contribution of Alexandria to
Mathematics and Engineering
Mechanical Engineering Department
Faculty of Engineering
Alexandria University, Egypt
The Ancient City of Alexandria
The city of Alexandria was built in 331 B.C.
It was named after Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia.
Alexander the Great named more than twenty cities after his
name, the most famous of them all is Alexandria of Egypt.
Alexander the Great envisioned two missions for this great city:
The spread of Hellenic influence over the world.
The return of the ancient land of Egypt to its former greatness and
As such, Alexandria became the prime center of trade of the
world and the commercial junction point of Asia, Africa, and
Alexander The Great
The Alexandrian Museum
Upon the death of Alexander the Great, Egypt fell under the rule of
The dynasty of Ptolemy was to rule the land for over 250 years.
He envisaged the city as acenter of Greek culture, not merely as a
trading post.
From early times in Greek history, philosophical schools were
developed, which were in reality communities of scholars. Their
housings were called museums.
Ptolemy conceived the ambition to establish such a museum at
The Alexandrian Museum
With large revenues at the hand of Ptolemy, he made the
museum attractive by the then novel means of granting
salary stipends, as well as board and residence, to
prominent scholars of his choice.
This plan was an immediate success, and at about the
year 300 B.C. the Alexandrian museum became a reality.
It included in its membership intellectuals of all sorts-
poets, philosophers, grammarians, mathematicians,
astronomers, geographers, physicians, historians,
artists, and many others.
The best surviving description of the museum is by the
Greek geographer and historian Strabo, who mentions
that it was a large complex of buildings and gardens
with richly decorated lecture and banquet halls linked
by colonnaded walks.
Alexandria Museum
The museum would have been called a modern university today, and
with a great library. This picture shows one of a number of identical
side-by-side lecture rooms recently excavated in Alexandria.
The Library of Alexandria
Ptolemy's constructiveness, which was manifested in his incorporation of the
Alexandrian Museum, was matched again by his founding of a public library.
There had, of course, been libraries before that. The Phoenicians had had
them, as well as the Egyptians and the Greeks. But those had almost
invariably been archives of records or repositories for valued writings.
The Library of Alexandria,by contrast, was conceived in the modern sense,
and was from the beginning intended to share the function of preservation of
writings with that of public service.
It was intended to make the world's literature accessible to everyone.
The Library was established almost simultaneously with the museum and
adjacent to it, and in time was to become monumentally important.
The Library of Alexandria
Alexandrian Scholars
Euclid (330 BC 260 BC)
Archimedes (287 BC 212 BC)
Eratosthenes (276 BC 194 BC)
Apollonius (262 BC 190 BC)
Heron (10 AD 70 AD)
Claudius Ptolemy (100 AD 170 AD)
Diophantus (200 AD 284 AD)
Pappus (290 AD 350 AD)
Hypatia (355 AD 415 AD)
Euclid (330 BC 260 BC)
The leading mathematician in this initial galaxy of the Alexandrian
Museum was the great Euclid.
The Greek study of mathematics had begun three centuries before this
time. Initially it had been drawn largely from Egypt,in a state which was
rich only in potentialities.
Its abstractions had appealed to the Greek genius, and under the
impingement of many able minds it had developed until the geometry
of plane figures, and of the simpler and regular solids, was well
Algebraic equations through the quadratics had been solved, and the
irrationalities arising in their solutions had been classified. Finally, the
concepts of rigorous proof, accurate enunciation of assumptions, and
the definition of terms had been fully evolved.
Euclid of Alexandria
Euclid (330 BC 260 BC)
Euclid enters history as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time
and he is often referred to as the father of geometry.
The standard geometry most of us learned in school is called Euclidian
In 300 BC, Euclid gathered up all of the knowledge developed in Greek
mathematics at that time and created his great work “The Elements”.
This treatise is unequaled in the history of science and mathematics,
and could safely lay claim to being the most influential scientific book of
all time.
Statue in honor of Euclid in the
Oxford University Museum of
Natural History
Euclid’s Elements
The Elements consisted of thirteen books covering a vast body of
mathematical knowledge, spanning arithmetic, geometry and number
The books are organized by subjects, covering every area of mathematics
developed by the Greeks:
Books I - IV, and Book VI: Plane Geometry
Books XI - XIII: Solid Geometry
Books V and X: Magnitudes and Ratios
Books VII - IX: Whole Numbers
The basic structure of the Elements begins with Euclid establishing axioms,
the starting point from which he developed 465 propositions, progressing
from his first established principles to the unknown in a series of steps, a
process that he called the 'Synthetic Approach‘.
He looked at mathematics as a whole, but was concentrated on geometry
and that particular discipline formed the basis of his work.
A fragment of Euclid's "Elements" on
part of the Oxyrhynchus papyri
Euclid’s Axioms
Euclid based his approach upon 10 axioms,
statements that could be accepted as truths.
He called these axioms his 'postulates' and divided
them into two groups of five, the first set common to
all mathematics, the second specific to geometry.
Euclid felt that anybody who could read and
understand words could understand his notions and
postulates but, to make sure, he included 23
definitions of common words, such as 'point' and
'line',to ensure that there could be no semantic
From this basis, he built his entire theory of plane
geometry, which has shaped mathematics, science
and philosophy for centuries.
Euclid's First Group of Postulates - the Common
Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to
each other
If equals are added to equals, the results are equal
If equals are subtracted from equals, the remainders are
Things that coincide with each other are equal to each other
The whole is greater than the part
The remaining five postulates were related specifically
to geometry:
A straight line can be drawn between any two points.
Any finite straight line can be extended indefinitely in a
straight line.
For any line segment, it is possible to draw a circle using the
segment as the radius and one end point as the center.
All right angles are congruent (the same).
If a straight line falling across two other straight lines results
in the sum of the angles on the same side less than two right
angles, then the two straight lines, if extended indefinitely,
meet on the same side as the side where the angle sums are
less than two right angles.
Euclid’s Influence
The reason that Euclid was so influential is that his work is more than just an
explanation of geometry or even of mathematics.
The way in which he used logic and demanded proof for every theorem shaped the
ideas of western philosophers right up until the present day.
Great philosopher mathematicians such as Descartes and Newton presented their
philosophical works using Euclid's structure and format, moving from simple first
principles to complicated concepts.
Abraham Lincoln was a fan of Euclid, and the US Declaration of Independence used
Euclid's axiomatic system. The writers of the Declaration of Independence allude to
Euclid by beginning their document with a short list of "self-evident truths" and
framing the rest of the Declaration as a logical argument based on those truths.
Euclid's systematic development of his subject, from a small set of axioms to deep
results, and the consistency of his approach throughout the Elements, encouraged its
use as a textbook for about 2,000 years.
The Elements still influences modern geometry books. Further, its logical axiomatic
approach and rigorous proofs remain the cornerstone of mathematics.
Euclid's Elements Title Page
Quotes and Proofs by Euclid
The ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy, asked Euclid if there was
a shorter road to learning geometry than through
Euclid's Elements.
Euclid’s answer to this question was
There is no royal road to geometry
Let ACB be a right-angled triangle with right angle CAB.
On each of the sides BC, AB, and CA, squares are drawn, CBDE, BAGF, and ACIH, in that
From A, draw a line parallel to BD and CE.It will perpendicularly intersect BC and DE
at K and L, respectively.
Join CF and AD, to form the triangles BCF and BDA.
Angles CAB and BAG are both right angles; therefore C, A, and G are collinear.
Similarly for B, A, and H.
Angles CBD and FBA are both right angles; therefore angle ABD equals angle FBC,
since both are the sum of a right angle and angle ABC.
Since AB is equal to FB and BD is equal to BC, triangle ABD must be congruent to
triangle FBC.
Since A-K-L is a straight line, parallel to BD, then rectangle BDLK has twice the area of
triangle ABD because they share the base BD and have the same altitude BK, i.e., a line
normal to their common base, connecting the parallel lines BD and AL. (lemma 2)
Since C is collinear with A and G, square BAGF must be twice in area to triangle FBC.
Therefore, rectangle BDLK must have the same area as square BAGF = AB2.
Similarly, it can be shown that rectangle CKLE must have the same area as square
Adding these two results, AB2+AC2=BD ×BK +KL ×KC
Since BD = KL, BD ×BK +KL ×KC = BD(BK + KC) =BD ×BC
Therefore, AB2+AC2=BC2, since CBDE is a square.
Famous Quote by Euclid Proof of Pythagoras Theorem by Euclid
Archimedes (287 BC 212 BC)
At the Museum the great tradition of Euclid passed on to his successors.
Among the students of that time there appeared at Alexandria as a
youth the all-overshadowing genius of Archimedes.
Archimedes studied at the Museum for several years, and although the
locale of his later great work was not Alexandria but Syracuse in Sicily,
he carried through life the stamp of his early Alexandrian education and
His thought trend has been recognized as typical of the Alexandrian
school. Throughout his life he published his works in the form of
correspondence with the principal mathematicians of his time,
including the Alexandrian scholars Conon and Eratosthenes.
A Thoughtful Archimedes
Archimedes (287 BC 212 BC)
Archimedes is known as the father of integral calculus.
He derived the relation between the surface and volume of a sphere and its
circumscribing cylinder. Archimedes was proud enough of the latter discovery to
leave instructions for his tomb to be marked with a sphere inscribed in a cylinder.
The principal results of his work “On the Sphere and Cylinder” are that the surface
area of any sphere of radius r is four times that of its greatest circle (in modern
notation, S = 4πr2)and that the volume of a sphere is two-thirds that of the cylinder
in which it is inscribed (leading to the formula, V = 4πr3/3).
He is well known for developing a fundamental principle of hydrostatics, known as
Archimedes’ principle. This principle states that a body immersed in a fluid
experiences an upward buoyant force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid. As
such, he is considered by many to be the founder of hydrostatics.
He is also known for inventing a device for raising water, still used in developing
countries, known as the Archimedes screw.
The Archimedes Screw
Archimedes’ Principle
The volume of the sphere to the
volume of the cylinder is 2 to 3
Famous Quotes by Archimedes
Eureka! Eureka!
At one time, king Hieron ordered a golden crown and gave the goldsmith the exact amount of
metal to make it. When Hieron received it, the crown had the correct weight but the monarch
suspected that some silver had been used instead of the gold. Since he could not prove it, he
brought the problem to Archimedes. One day while considering the question, Archimedes
entered his bathtub and recognized that the amount of water that overflowed the tub was
proportional to the amount of his body that was submerged. This observation gave him the
means to solve the problem. He was so excited that he ran naked through the streets of
Syracuse shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" (I have found it!).
The expression “Eurekais also the state motto of California, referring to the momentous
discovery of gold in 1848. The California State Seal has included the word “Eureka" since its
original design in 1850.
Give me a place to stand and I will move the whole world
Said to be his assertion in demonstrating the principle of the lever as quoted by Pappus of
Do not disturb my circles!
Archimedes was active in defending the city of Syracuse from Roman invasion when he died.
He refused to obey an invading soldier's orders, saying that he would first finish solving the
problem on which he was working. "Do not disturb my circles" were said to be his last words
before the angered soldier killed him.
Eratosthenes (276 BC 194 BC)
He was called to Alexandria in the first instance to direct its great Library.
He wrote one of the earliest and most important works in the history of
geography, Geographika.
In this work, which for the first time described the geography of the entire
inhabited world as it was then known, Eratosthenes invented the discipline
of geography as we understand it.As such, he is commonly referred to as
the "father of geography“.
He is best known for being the first person to calculate the circumference of
the Earth.
Eratosthenes proposed a simple algorithm for finding prime numbers. This
algorithm is known in mathematics as the Sieve of Eratosthenes.
First modern edition and English
translation of Geographika by
Princeton University Press (2010)
Eratosthenes’ Method for Measuring
the Circumference of the Earth
At Syene (Aswan), some 5000 stadia (800 km) southeast of Alexandria,
the sun’s rays fall vertically at noon at the summer solstice.
Eratosthenes noted that at Alexandria,at the same date and time,
sunlight fell at an angle of about 7.2° from the vertical. (Writing before
the Greeks adopted the degree, a Babylonian unit of measure, he
actually said “a fiftieth of a circle.”)
He correctly assumed the Sun’s distance to be very great; its rays
therefore are practically parallel when they reach Earth. Given the
distance between the two cities, he was able to calculate the
circumference of Earth, obtaining 250,000 stadia.
The exact length of the units (stadia) he used is doubtful, and the
accuracy of his result is therefore uncertain. His measurement of Earth’s
circumference may have varied by 0.5 to 17 percent from the value
accepted by modern astronomers.
By knowing the length of an arc (l) and
the size of the central angle (α) that it
subtends, one can obtain the relation
that the proportion of the length of arc l
to Earth’s circumference, 2πR (where R
is Earth’s radius) equals the proportion
of the central angle αto the angle
subtended by the whole circumference
(360°)i.e., l : 2πR =α:360.
Apollonius (262 BC 190 BC)
Apollonius is a mathematician who was known by his contemporaries as “the Great
Apollonius gave the ellipse, the parabola, and the hyperbola their modern names.
His treatise “Conics” is one of the greatest scientific works from the ancient world.
As a youth, Apollonius studied in Alexandria under the pupils of Euclid and subsequently
taught at the university there.
The Apollonius crater on the Moon is named in his honor.
The conic sections result from intersecting a plane
with a double cone, as shown in the figure. There
are three distinct families of conic sections: the
ellipse (including the circle); the parabola (with one
branch); and the hyperbola (with two branches). Modern edition of the treatise on
Conic Sections of Apollonius by
Cambridge University Press (1896)
The Roman Era of Alexandria
Upon the death of Cleopatra in the year 31 BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty came to
its end, and Egypt became a province of the Empire of Rome.
The development of the Museum had proceeded, until it resembled in almost
all of its aspects the modern university.
There were regularly scheduled courses of graded lectures, through which
systematic higher instruction was imparted in various academic subjects.
Moreover, there was a large body of students, more or less regularly enrolled.
Meanwhile, the library also had been evolving and enlarging its range of
functions. The art of copying manuscripts had been developed. Calligraphers
were now especially trained for this purpose.
The repute of Alexandria as the world's intellectual focal point was enhanced
by this activity. Teachers had need go there for training, and from there also
came the books.
Heron of Alexandria (10 AD 70 AD)
Heron was a brilliant geometer and mathematician, but he is most
commonly remembered as a truly great inventor.
He was known as Mechanikos or the Machine Man.
Heron’s contributions to mathematics include:
Hero described a method of iteratively computing the square root.
Today, however, his name is most closely associated with Heron's Formula for
finding the area of a triangle from its side lengths.
Heron’s formula
Heron of Alexandria
Heron’s Inventions
Heron’s inventions included the following:
The first-recorded steam engine,it was created almost two
millennia before the industrial revolution.
The first vending machine was also one of his
constructions. When a coin was introduced via a slot on
the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was
A windwheel operating an organ, marking the first
instance of wind powering a machine in history.
Heron’s fountain, which is a standalone fountain that
operates under self-contained hydrostatic energy.
Heron’s wind-powered organ
Heron’s Engine Heron’s Vending Machine
Heron’s Fountain
Heron’s Fountain
Heron’s fountain operates as follows:
Initially, the air supply container (C) should contain only air; the water
supply container (B) should contain only water.
To start the fountain, pour water into the basin (A).
The water from the basin (A) flows by gravity into the air supply
container (C).
This water forces the air in (C) to move into the water supply
container (B), where the increased air pressure in (B) forces the water
in (B) to issue out the top as a fountain into the basin (A).
The fountain water caught in the basin (A) will drain back to the air
supply container (C).
The flow will stop when the water supply container (B) is empty.
Heron’s Fountain
Claudius Ptolemy (100 AD 170 AD)
Like Euclid, Ptolemy lives in history as a mind and hardly at all as a man. Euclid excelled
as a selector, organizer and expositor of knowledge, and precisely so did Ptolemy.
The most important of Ptolemy's writings is a work in thirteen books of mathematical
and astronomical content. Ptolemy called it the mathematical syntax. Since Arabian
times, however, it has been generally known as The Almagest.
The Almagest presents Greek trigonometry in the definitive form it was to retain, and
over which no effective improvement was to be achieved for a thousand years.
On the side of astronomy, it contains the exposition of a great theory of geocentric
motion of the heavenly bodies which came to be universally known as the Ptolemaic
System.In this system, the Earth is at the center of all the celestial bodies.
Ptolemy's theory remained unchallenged until the introduction of the Copernican
system by Copernicus in 1543. Copernicus proposed that the Earth and the other
planets instead revolved around the Sun.
The Ptolemaic System
Diophantus (200 AD 284 AD)
He is sometimes called the "father of algebra" and is the author of a
series of books called Arithmetica. These texts deal with solving
algebraic equations.
He made important advances in mathematical notation, becoming the
first person known to use algebraic notation and symbolism. Before him
everyone wrote out equations completely.
Mathematical historian Kurt Vogel states: “Diophantus took a
fundamental step from verbal algebra towards symbolic algebra.
In modern use, Diophantine equations usually denote algebraic
equations with integer coefficients, for which integer solutions are
Title page of the 1621 edition
of Diophantus' Arithmetica
Diophantus and Fermat’s Last Theorem
The 1621 edition of Arithmetica gained fame after Pierre de Fermat wrote his
famous “Fermat’s Last Theoremin 1637 in the margins of his copy:
“No three positive integers a, b, and c satisfy the equation an+ bn= cnfor any integer
value of nstrictly greater than two.”
Fermat's proof was never found,and the problem of finding a proof for the
theorem went unsolved for centuries.
After 358 years of effort by mathematicians, a proof was finally found in 1994,
by Andrew Wiles after working on it for seven years.
Sir Andrew Miles is a British mathematician and a Royal Society Research
Professor at the University of Oxford. He received the 2016 Abel Prize for
proving Fermat’s last theorem.
It is believed that Fermat did not actually have the proof he claimed to have.
Title page of the 1621 edition
of Diophantus' Arithmetica
Pappus of Alexandria (290 AD 350 AD)
Pappus was one of the last great Alexandrian mathematicians of Antiquity.
He is known for his Synagoge or Collection, which was written in 340 AD.
He is also known for Pappus' hexagon theorem in projective geometry.
Pappus's Mathematicae Collectiones,
translated into Latin (1589)
Pappushexagon theorem states that given one set of
collinear points A, B, C, and another set of collinear
points a, b, c, then the intersection points X, Y, Zof
line pairs Ab and aB,Ac and aC,Bc and bC are
collinear, lying on the Pappus line.
Hypatia of Alexandria (355 AD 415 AD)
Theon and his daughter Hypatia taught mathematics at the Museum.
Theon wrote an excellent commentary upon the Almagest of Ptolemy,
and is still prominently known for his revised edition of Euclid's
Hypatia,on her part, wrote upon the first six books of the Arithmetica
of Diophantus and the Conics of Apollonius.
She is the earliest female mathematician of whose life and work
reasonably detailed knowledge exists.
Hypatia was the last of the Alexandrian mathematicians and probably
the last of the Museum's scholars.
Hypatia of Alexandria
Ethnicity of Alexandrian Scholars
A quote from Victor J. Katz (1998). A History of Mathematics: An Introduction.
"But what we really want to know is to what extent the Alexandrian mathematicians of the
period from the first to the fifth centuries C.E. were Greek. Certainly, all of them wrote in Greek
and were part of the Greek intellectual community of Alexandria. And most modern studies
conclude that the Greek community coexisted. So should we assume that Ptolemy and
Diophantus, Pappus and Hypatia were ethnically Greek, that their ancestors had come from
Greece at some point in the past but had remained effectively isolated from the Egyptians?
Ethnicity of Alexandrian Scholars
A quote from Victor J. Katz (1998). A History of Mathematics: An Introduction.
"It is, of course, impossible to answer this question definitively. But research in papyri dating
from the early centuries of the common era demonstrates that a significant amount of
intermarriage took place between the Greek and Egyptian communities. And it is known that
Greek marriage contracts increasingly came to resemble Egyptian ones. In addition, even from
the founding of Alexandria, small numbers of Egyptians were admitted to the privileged classes
in the city to fulfill numerous civic roles. Of course, it was essential in such cases for the
Egyptians to become "Hellenized," to adopt Greek habits and the Greek language. Given that the
Alexandrian mathematicians mentioned here were active several hundred years after the
founding of the city, it would seem at least equally possible that they were ethnically Egyptian
as that they remained ethnically Greek.In any case, it is unreasonable to portray them with
purely European features when no physical descriptions exist."
Thank you for your time
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