KIDS’ BLOG! Archimedes’ Ancient Screw Saves 21st Century Britain From Flooding

Spaans-BabcockWhat do you do when the rains keep coming and floods sweep across your country? As the waters rise and cover your fields and towns, what do you use to save your home? Do you write a fancy new computer program, download the newest anti-flooding app on your phone or design complicated modern robots to deal with it? Well, people in the United Kingdom are facing this very problem and you might be surprised to learn they aren’t turning to modern technology. Instead, they’re looking back to one of antiquity’s greatest scientists and inventors, Archimedes, and to his giant water screws.

The Problem

So, why does the United Kingdom need Archimedes’ giant water screws?

Shrewsbury Abbey in 2000.

Shrewsbury Abbey in 2000.

In 2007 a series of extremely destructive floods plagued the UK. These floods caused widespread damage and cost millions of pounds (British currency). A few facts to illustrate the destruction:[1]

  • Thirteen people lost their lives and hundreds had to be rescued.
  • Over 48,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
  • Nearly 7,000 businesses were flooded.
  • The floods cost the British economy £3.2 billion (5.32 billion U.S. dollars).

The UK also had quite extensive flood damage seven years earlier in 2000. The catastrophic floods of 2007 helped them to realize they needed to prepare in case this happened again. They came up with several different ways to deal with the problem and when the bad weather returned this winter, the British were ready. Thankfully, the storms came steadily throughout the entire season rather than all at once as in 2007, which allowed time to repair flood defenses and prepare for the next big downpour.[2] But scientists continued to wonder what could be done if they had another giant storm that overwhelmed the current defenses. Now, in 2014, they’ve discovered–or should we say rediscovered–a solution.

The Inventor

Who is this ancient scientist Archimedes?

Archimedes by Fetti, 1620.

Archimedes by Fetti, 1620.

He was born in about 287 BCE in Syracuse, Sicily. Sicily is a large island off the tip of Italy. His father, Phidias, was an astronomer, so an interest in science ran in the family. Archimedes had a thirst for knowledge. When he had learned all he could in Sicily he traveled to Alexandria in Egypt to study with teachers who had been students of Euclid, a renowned ancient mathematician. Archimedes eventually became a mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer.

Archimedes is credited with many fantastic and useful inventions including his giant water screws, a massive claw used to sink ships, complicated lever and pulley systems and even a “Death Ray” made out of mirrors! In his time he was known as the “the wise one,” “the master” and “the great geometer.”[3]

The Solution

How are giant screws going to protect the United Kingdom from flooding and why did Archimedes invent the screws in the first place?

In Egypt, where Archimedes lived for a time during his studies, the farmers needed to find a way to get the water from the Nile to their crops further away. The ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus explained how Archimedes invented a screw that as it turned pulled water up from rivers and streams and redirected it to the fields where the crops were planted:

. . . and what is the most surprising thing of all, they [Roman slaves] draw out the water of the streams they encounter [in Spanish mines] by means of what is called by men the Egyptian screw, which was invented by Archimedes of Syracuse at the time of his visit to Egypt; and by the use of such screws they carry the water in successive lifts as far as the entrance, drying up in this way the spot where they are digging and making it well suited to the furtherance of their operations. Since this machine is an exceptionally ingenious device, an enormous amount of water is thrown out, to one’s astonishment, by means of a trifling amount of labour, and all the water from such rivers is brought up easily and from the depths and poured out on the surface. And a man may well marvel at the inventiveness of the craftsman [Archimedes], in connection not only with this invention but with many other greater ones as well, the fame of which has encompassed the entire inhabited world . . .[4]

So the British scientists realized that if the giant screws could be used to draw up and distribute water where it was needed, they could also be used to take water away when there was too much. They set to work building a brand new pumping facility that will have six Archimedes screws. Each screw will weigh 55 tons and will measure 3.75 meters in diameter and over 20 meters in length.[5] The screws are so big and powerful that when the pumping station is running it could “fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two minutes!” [6]

Another great advantage of the screws is they can be used to move more than just water. When an area is flooded the water is usually filled with debris including mud, trees, building materials and more. The screws are able to pull all of the water and debris up and move it out of the area.

So the next time you’re faced with a problem, instead of looking for the newest app or a modern gadget to solve the dilemma, remember there are answers in the past. Or maybe you can be like Archimedes and come up with a solution yourself! Never be afraid to use your imagination and invent something new. Maybe thousands of years from now people will use your creations to help them deal with their problems!


Make your very own Archimedes screw at home! Click on the video below to see how you can use common materials to build this ancient machine. You’ll need a plastic water bottle, a tack, an unsharpened pencil, some cardstock or heavy duty paper, a cup to trace a circle on the paper and some strong tape.

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