|Bronze steelyard, Roman (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
"Give me a lever," Archimedes said, "and a place to stand, and I will move the world."
Only he didn't say that. That is the final version, the gradual improvement, cleaned-up over the centuries, as everyone from Lord Byron to Thomas Jefferson to John F. Kennedy grabbed the thought and started polishing.
So I don't feel bad, faced with one of those lingering household tasks, left undone due to its difficulty, I thought of Archimedes' supposed line (compounding the error by ascribing it to Aristotle—they both begin with A!—until I drew upon my journalistic training, and checked).
So what did Archimedes say? Nothing. His writings are lost. The sentiment comes to us from Plutarch, in his Life of Marcellus (14:7):
And yet even Archimedes, who was a kinsman and friend of King Hiero, wrote to him that with any given force it was possible to move any given weight; and emboldened, as we are told, by the strength of his demonstration, he declared that, if there were another world, and he could go to it, he could move this. Hiero was astonished, and begged him to put his proposition into execution, and show him some great weight moved by a slight forceWhich he proceeded to do, Plutarch says, by moving a ship with little effort, using a system of pulleys.
|Cigarette card, 1888 (Met)|
Maybe I should outline the situation:
My younger son wanted to be a writer. I, in that automatic error that parents make, used my life as the lens through which to see his, and though this ambition meant he needed a roll top desk to write upon. Because that's what writers have, roll top desks. I still have the one I bought with my paper route money in the early 1970s, for all the good it did.
Thanks to the wonder of Craigslist, a sufficiently massive oaken roll top desk was stuck into his room, where it sat neglected for five or 10 years, until he made it known we could get rid of that thing at any time.
Oh that it were that easy.
My wife automatically assumed that her husband, with his balky back and bad hip, could never move the thing. Perhaps neighbor boys could. Perhaps a lawn care crew could be waylaid at their work and lured inside our home. She spoke, several times, made several calls. But burly men or boys were not available. I pondered what to do, even phoned 1-800-GOT-JUNK. No wonder they're so cheery on those radio ads; they're expensive.
"Give me a lever," I thought, "and a place to stand, and I will move the world."
Monday after my writing was done, I dragged the hand truck upstairs and tipped the desk onto it. Then bumped the chunk of oak slowly but controlled down the stairs, out the front door, and into the van. I was afraid they wouldn't take it, but the folks at Goodwill were happy to have it. "We have a lot of people who want these things," the guy at Goodwill said.
"I hope it finds a good home," I said, driving off with relief. And people think the classics are without practical use.