The Computation of Pi by Archimedes

Copyright 2010, Bill McKeeman, Dartmouth College



It is famously known that Archimedes approximated $\pi$ by computing the perimeters of many-edged regular polygons, one polygon inside the circle and one outside. This presentation recapitulates and explains Archimedes' computation. The surprise to me was how many "tweaks" Archimedes applied at various stages of an otherwise systematic approach.

format long

The General Plan

The circumference of a circle of radius $R$ is $2 \pi R$ which defines $\pi$. The perimeter of the inner hexagon is $6R$ which implies $6R < 2 \pi R$, thus providing a lower bound $3 < \pi$. Computing the perimeter of the outer hexagon supplies an upper bound. Increasing the number of edges tightens the bounds. Thus thought Archimedes.

The Context

The year was earlier than 200 BCE. Archimedes, who lived in Sicily, knew of the work in Alexandria, where Euclid had published his "Elements" some years before.

Greek mathematics used a kind of decimal integer. For example ${_\prime}\alpha\upsilon\kappa\delta{^\prime}$ means 1424. Mathematicians could express rational numbers, but did not have the concept of the digit 0, the decimal point or the means to represent irrational numbers such as $\pi$ and square roots. Irrational numbers were approximated by rational upper and lower bounds.

Finally, algebra was unavailable, so words were used to describe computations and algorithms. The flavor of ancient presentation is provided by Archimedes' statement "The surface of any sphere is four times its greatest circle." We would write $A = 4 \pi R^2$.

The Computation of $\pi$

The result presented by Archimedes translates to

$3 \frac{1}{7} > \pi > 3 \frac{10}{71}$

which appears, using the numbers of Archimedes' time, as

$\gamma^{\prime}\;\zeta^{\prime\prime} > \pi > \gamma^{\prime}\;\iota^{\prime}\;o\alpha^{\prime\prime}$

Advice to the Reader

What follows is a detailed rendition of the steps taken by Archimedes. While following the logic, it may help the reader to look ahead to the Summary to get the big picture of all the computations on one page.

The Outer n-gon

Given the half-edge length $e_n$ of any regular n-gon enclosing a circle, one can compute the half-edge length $e_{2n}$ of the enclosing regular 2n-gon based on the equations

$\begin{array}{rcl}    x_n/R       &=& (e_n - e_{2n})/e_{2n}  \\    (x_n+R)/R   &=& e_n/e_{2n}             \\    (x_n+R)/e_n &=& R/e_{2n}               \\    x_n^2       &=& R^2+e_n^2 \end{array}$

The first equation is a consequence of similar triangles. The second and third equations are algebraic manipulations of the first. The fourth equation is an application of the Pythagorean Theorem.

The last two equations are combined into an iteration.

$\begin{array}{rcl}    R/e_{2n} &=& (x_n+R)/e_n                  \\             &=& (R + \sqrt{R^2+e_n^2})/e_n   \\             &=& R/e_n + \sqrt{(R/e_n)^2+1} \end{array}$

Let $a_n \stackrel{\rm def}{=} R/e_n$. The result is a recursive formula for $a_{2n}$.

$a_{2n} = a_n + \sqrt{a_n^2 + 1}$

The value of $a_n$ more than doubles at each step, implying that each edge $e_n$ is less than one half the length of its predecessor at each step, which is consistent with one's intuitive understanding of the process.

Archimedes carried out the computation up to the 96-gon, starting with the 30,60,90 degree triangle bounded by sides

$R, x_6, e_6$

which has known dimensions. In MATLAB, for the unit circle,

R = 1;
alpha_6 = 2*pi/12;       % 30 degrees, half angle of the hexagon
x_6 = R/cos(alpha_6);    % R*sqrt(4/3), hypotenuse
e_6 = x_6*sin(alpha_6);  % R*sqrt(1/3), half edge of the hexagon
fprintf('e_6 = %.6g*R = R*sqrt(1/3)\n', e_6);
e_6 = 0.57735*R = R*sqrt(1/3)

Since we know the half-edge $e_6$ for $R=1$, trying the formula is straightforward.

a_6  = R/e_6;
a_12 = a_6  + sqrt(a_6^2  + 1);
a_24 = a_12 + sqrt(a_12^2 + 1);
a_48 = a_24 + sqrt(a_24^2 + 1);
a_96 = a_48 + sqrt(a_48^2 + 1);
e_96 = R/a_96;

The values of $a_n$ are more than doubling; the values $n/a_n$ are slowly decreasing and converging to $\pi$ as expected

fprintf('n     ');
fprintf('%7d ', 6, 12, 24, 48, 96);
fprintf('\na_n     ');
fprintf('%.6g ', a_6, a_12, a_24, a_48, a_96);
fprintf('\nn/a_n    ');
fprintf('%.6g ', 6/a_6, 12/a_12, 24/a_24, 48/a_48, 96/a_96);
fprintf('... %.6g\n', pi);
n           6      12      24      48      96 
a_n     1.73205 3.73205 7.59575 15.2571 30.5468 
n/a_n    3.4641 3.21539 3.15966 3.14609 3.14271 ... 3.14159

Unfortunately for Archimedes, he did not have double precision floating point so he, and therefore we, still have some work to do.

Hand Calculation

It is simpler for hand calculation if the intermediate results are improper fractions with reasonably large integer parts. This is achieved by multiplying the iteration formula by an arbitrary integer constant $c$, the value of which can be chosen later.

$\begin{array}{rcl}    c R/e_{2n} &=& c (x_n+R)/e_n                  \\             &=& (c R + c \sqrt{R^2+e_n^2})/e_n   \\             &=& c R/e_n + \sqrt{(c R/e_n)^2+c^2} \end{array}$

Let $a_n \stackrel{\rm def}{=} c R/e_n$ and $b_n \stackrel{\rm def}{=} \sqrt{(c R/e_n)^2+c^2}$. The result is new formulas for $b_n$ and $a_{2n}$.

$\begin{array}{rcl}   b_n    &=& \sqrt{a_n^2 + c^2} \\   a_{2n} &=& a_n + b_n  \end{array}$

Two mutually recursive formulas are provided because (1) $b_n$ is irrational and must be replaced by a rational bound at each step and (2) the edge of the inner n-gon is expressed in terms of $b_n$, not $a_n$.

MATLAB fractions

This presentation now switches to "Greek mode," that is, variable precision integers (vpi) and fractions (fr), provided by John D'Errico and Ben Petschel on the MathWorks File Exchange. Except for type conversions putting values into the vpi and fr domains, their packages are non-intrusive in the code that follows. Thank you to MathWorks, John and Ben.

Bounds for Irrational Numbers

Archimedes states without explanation

$\frac{265}{153} < \sqrt 3 < \frac{1351}{780}$

This statement and other similar ones are easily checked without taking square roots in MATLAB (and by Archimedes' readers).

assert((265/153)^2 < 3 && 3 < (1351/780)^2);

Square Roots of Rationals

Heath, in his book "The Works of Archimedes," devotes 19 pages to speculations by famous mathematicians on how Archimedes took square roots. At all times Archimedes had to make a tradeoff between the better accuracy of larger denominators against the computational labor involved dealing with larger integers. The speculation I prefer is that Archimedes used the known iteration for square root with a good starting value to get a very accurate fraction, then picked among the continued fraction convergents to get suitable values of lesser accuracy.

The following iteration for square root of $a$,

$x \leftarrow \frac{1}{2}(x + a/x)$

can be restated for rational radicand $a/b$ as

$\begin{array}{rcl}    x/y &\leftarrow& \frac{1}{2}(x/y+a y/b x) \\    & \leftarrow & (b x^2 + a y^2)/2 b x y \end{array}$

It is not hard to pick a good-enough starting point for an improper fraction. If the integer has an odd number of digits and leading digit $D$, pick $S = 1,2\; \mbox{or}\; 3$ so that $S^2 <= D$. If the integer part has an even number of digits and leading digits $DE$, pick $S = 3,\ldots 9$ so that $S^2 <= DE$. Then form the initial value $x$ by appending to digit $S$ a $0$ for every pair of unexamined digits. That is, for $349450$, $DE=34$, $S=5$, $x=500$, $y=1$.

Carrying out four steps of the computation for input $3$ gives rational approximations for the $\sqrt 3$.

  n = 4;                   % the number of steps to take
  a = vpi(3); b = vpi(1);  % the radicand a/b
  x = 1; y = 1;            % starting values for the rational result
  for i=1:n                % all values are now vpi
    t = b*x^2 + a*y^2;
    y = 2*b*x*y;
    g = gcd(t,y);          % known as Euclid's algorithm
    x = t/g;               % exact division
    y = y/g;
    fprintf('%.16f  %6d/%d\n', double([fr(x)/fr(y), x, y]));
  fprintf('...\n%.16f     sqrt(%d/%d)\n', ...
    sqrt(double(a/b)), double(a), double(b));
2.0000000000000000       2/1
1.7500000000000000       7/4
1.7321428571428572      97/56
1.7320508100147274   18817/10864
1.7320508075688772     sqrt(3/1)

Getting the Continued Fraction

Taking the most accurate of the four approximations above,

  num = vpi(18817);  den = 10864;
  cf = vpi([]);          % cf coefficients are always integers
  while den > 0          % compute continued fraction
    if den == 1          % choose long form of cf
      if num == 1
        r = vpi(1);           % finish with digit 1
        den = 0;
      else               % force one more digit
        r = num - 1;
        num = 1;
    else                 % grab a digit
      r = num/den;       % integer division
      t = num - r*den;   % new num/den
      num = den;
      den = t;
    cf(end+1) = r;

gives the continued fraction for $\frac{18817}{10864}$.

  fprintf('%d ', double(cf));
1 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 

Evaluating the continued fraction gives a series of convergents, alternating greater or less than the input fraction. As can be seen in the printout, they are good approximations to $\sqrt 3$.

   fprintf('x/y             (x/y)^2+-err\n');  % table title
   n = numel(cf);
   for i = 1:n                    % evaluate continued fraction
     if i == 1                    % startup case
       h(i) = cf(i);
       k(i) = 1;
     elseif i == 2                % startup case
       h(i) = cf(i)*h(i-1) + 1;
       k(i) = cf(i)*k(i-1);
     elseif i > 2                 % rest of cf
       h(i) = cf(i)*h(i-1) + h(i-2);
       k(i) = cf(i)*k(i-1) + k(i-2);
     % express result as L+-r/K^2 (need double for fprintf)
     H=double(h(i)); K=double(k(i)); L=round(H^2/K^2); r=H^2-L*K^2;
     conv = [sprintf('%d/%d', H, K), '                       '];
     if r == 0
       fprintf('%s %d\n', conv(1:16), L);
     elseif r < 0
       fprintf('%s %d-%d/%d^2\n', conv(1:16), L, abs(r), K);
       fprintf('%s %d+%d/%d^2\n', conv(1:16), L, r, K);
x/y             (x/y)^2+-err
1/1              1
2/1              4
5/3              3-2/3^2
7/4              3+1/4^2
19/11            3-2/11^2
26/15            3+1/15^2
71/41            3-2/41^2
97/56            3+1/56^2
265/153          3-2/153^2
362/209          3+1/209^2
989/571          3-2/571^2
1351/780         3+1/780^2
3691/2131        3-2/2131^2
5042/2911        3+1/2911^2
13775/7953       3-2/7953^2
18817/10864      3+1/10864^2

Perhaps it was from this list that Archimedes chose

$\frac{1351}{780} > \sqrt 3 > \frac{265}{153}$

Since there is not a unique choice, we assume that Archimedes picked values that would lead to the elegant result for $\pi$. Mathematicians contemporary to Archimedes mention that later Archimedes did get a more accurate result.

In any case the objective here is $\pi$, not square roots, so from this point on I shall just report the choices Archimedes made for square roots.

The Upper Bound

For the upper bound computation, Archimedes chose the initial values

c   = 153;
a_6 = c*R/e_6;       % 265.0038
b_6 = c*2;           % which is precise
a_6 = floor(a_6);    % choose rational lower bound
fprintf('a_6 = %d, b_6 = %d, c = %d\n', a_6, b_6, c);
a_6 = 265, b_6 = 306, c = 153

There are two values for $a_6$. The first result comes from the geometry of the triangle; the second is a chosen rational approximation. In this case the chosen $a_6$ is just a little low. Further choices for $a_n$ will be consistently low. The consequence is that rational estimate for $a_{96}$ is less than the fully accurate irrational value of $a_{96}$. The value of $e_{96}$ is therefore greater than the fully accurate half-edge length of the enclosing 96-gon. Finally $96\times e_{96}$ is greater than the half-perimeter of the enclosing 96-gon which is itself greater than $\pi$.


Following the reasoning above, each time $b_n$ is computed, it must be replaced by a rational bound that is smaller than the computed irrational value. The amount of the difference will be small if the values $b_n$ are well chosen. Considering Archimedes chose them, we should expect the best. Nevertheless, we will check. There are three values given by Archimedes for $b_{12} \ldots b_{48}$.

assert(b_6^2 <= (c*R/e_6)^2 + c^2);
a_12 = a_6 + b_6;    % 571

Archimedes chose $\;b_{12} = 591\frac{1}{8}                            < \sqrt{571^2+153^2}                            = \sqrt{349450}                            = 591.143\ldots$

b_12 = fr(591+1/8);   assert(b_12^2 < a_12^2+c^2);
a_24 = a_12 + b_12;  % 1162 1/8
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 

Archimedes chose $b_{24}=1172\frac{1}{8}                            < \sqrt{1162\frac{1}{8}^2+153^2}                            = \sqrt{1373943\frac{33}{64}}                            = 1172.153\ldots$

b_24 = fr(1172+1/8);  assert(b_24^2 < a_24^2+c^2);
a_48 = a_24 + b_24;  % 2334 1/4
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 

Archimedes chose $b_{48}=2339\frac{1}{4}                            < \sqrt{2334\frac{1}{4}^2+153^2}                            = \sqrt{5472132\frac{1}{16}}                            = 2339.259\ldots$

b_48 = fr(2339+1/4);  assert(b_48^2 < a_48^2+c^2);
a_96 = a_48 + b_48;  % 4673 1/2
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 

Archimedes made one more approximation, replacing the final (ugly) computed upper bound by one that is less tight but more elegant.

pi_hi   = fr(3+1/7)  % Chosen by Archimedes for publication
pi_est1 = 96*c/a_96  % Computed by Archimedes
pi                   % MATLAB's best
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 

pi_hi =


pi_est1 =


ans =


Using MATLAB, we can check that the values are ordered as expected.

assert(pi_hi > pi_est1 && pi_est1 > pi);

The Lower Bound

There is another diagram (in Heath), and another set of geometric equations for the lower bounds which leads to the same recursive formulas. One should not be surprised. In both cases the n-gons are the same; it is the scale that differs.

This time the chosen rational values of $a_n$ must be greater than the true values, causing the computed half-perimeter $96\times e_{96}$ to be less than the actual half-perimeter of the inner 96-gon.

The initial values are

a_6 = 1351; b_6 = 1560; c = 780;   assert(a_6^2+c^2 > b_6^2);


The values chosen for $b_n$ therefore must also be greater than the irrational true values. Repeating the iteration, and in this case also removing some common factors:

a_12 = a_6 + b_6;    % 2911

Archimedes chose $b_{12}=3013\frac{3}{4}                            > \sqrt{2911^2+780^2}                            = \sqrt{9082321}                            = 3013.689\ldots$

b_12 = fr(3013+3/4);    assert(b_12^2 > a_12^2+c^2);
a_24 = a_12 + b_12;  % 5924 3/4
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 

Archimedes removed the common factor $\frac{13}{4}$ from $a_{24}$ and $c$.

a_24 = a_24*(4/13);  % 1823
c = c*(4/13);        %  240

Archimedes chose $b_{24}=1838\frac{9}{11}                            > \sqrt{1823^2+240^2}                            = \sqrt{3380929}                            = 1838.730\ldots$

b_24 = fr(1838+9/11);   assert(b_24^2 > a_24^2+c^2);
a_48 = a_24 + b_24;  % 3661 9/11
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 

Archimedes removed the common factor $\frac{40}{11}$

a_48 = a_48*(11/40); % 1007
c = c*(11/40);       %   66

Archimedes chose $b_{48}=1009\frac{1}{6}                            > \sqrt{1007^2+66^2}                            = \sqrt{1018405}                            = 1009.161\ldots$

b_48 = fr(1009+1/6);    assert(b_48^2 > a_48^2+c^2);
a_96 = a_48 + b_48;  % 2016 1/6
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 

Archimedes chose $b_{96}=2017\frac{1}{4}                            > \sqrt{2016\frac{1}{6}^2+66^2}                            = \sqrt{4069284\frac{1}{36}}                            = 2017.247\ldots$

b_96 = fr(2017+1/4);    assert(b_96^2 > a_96^2+c^2);

pi_lo   = fr(3+10/71);  % Chosen by Archimedes for publication
pi_est2 = 96*c/b_96;    % Computed by Archimedes
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 
Warning: input value has a remainder mod 1, however function "rat" is not
defined for this object; rounding downwards instead 

The five values are






The difference between the published bounds is

disp(pi_hi - pi_lo)

Check that the five values are in decreasing order

assert(pi_lo < pi_est2 && pi_est2 < pi && pi < pi_est1 && pi_est1 < pi_hi);


Therefore, $3\frac{1}{7} > \pi > 3\frac{10}{71}$.

Archimedes might have written: $OE\Delta$


Here are all of the intermediate results in a table. Most of the action is in the choosing of $b_n$. Recall that the chosen values of $b_n$ for the outer case must be less than the computed values and conversely greater for the inner case.

$\begin{array}{lllcllrl}   & \rm outer &&&& \rm inner   && \rm remark                    \\   a & b & c & \mathbf{n} & a & b & c                            \\   265 & 306 & 153 & \mathbf{6} & 1351 & 1560 & 780 & \rm start  \\   571 & \sqrt{571^2+153^2} & 153 & \mathbf{12}       & 2911 & \sqrt{2911^2+780^2}\makebox[2pt]{} & 780         \\       & 591.1430\ldots &&&& 3013.6889\ldots && \rm compute      \\       & 591\frac{1}{8} &&&& 3013\frac{3}{4} && \rm choose       \\       &&& \mathbf{24}       & 5924\frac{3}{4}\makebox[5pt]{} && 780       & \mbox{factor out}\;\frac{13}{4}                         \\     1162\frac{1}{8} & \sqrt{1162\frac{1}{8}^2+153^2} & 153 &    & 1823 & \sqrt{1823^2+240^2} & 240                           \\    & 1172.1534\ldots &&&& 1838.7303\ldots  && \rm compute       \\    & 1172\frac{1}{8} &&&& 1838\frac{9}{11} && \rm choose \end{array}$

$\begin{array}{lllcllrl}  && & \mathbf{48}    & 3661\frac{9}{11} && 240 & \mbox{factor out}\;\frac{40}{11} \\    2334\frac{1}{4} & \sqrt{2334\frac{1}{4}^2+153^2} & 153    && 1007 & \sqrt{1007^2+66^2} & 66                            \\    & 2339.2589\ldots &&&& 1009.1605\ldots && \rm compute        \\    & 2339\frac{1}{4} &&&& 1009\frac{1}{6} && \rm choose         \\   4673\frac{1}{2} & (b\;\mbox{not needed}) & 153 & \mathbf{96}     & 2016\frac{1}{6} & \sqrt{2016\frac{1}{6}^2+66^2} & 66      \\     &&&&& 2017.2467\ldots && \rm compute                        \\     &&&&& 2017\frac{1}{4} &&  \rm choose \end{array}$

$\begin{array}{cc}   \rm outer\;result & \rm inner\;result                          \\   96\times 153/ 4673\frac{1}{2}=3\frac{1335}{9347}=3.1428265982\ldots &   96\times 66 / 2017\frac{1}{4}=3 \frac{1137}{8069}=3.1409096542\ldots \end{array}$


My principal references are "The Works of Archimedes" (1897), "The Method of Archimedes Recently Discovered by Heiberg" (1912) and "A History of Greek Mathematics" (1921) all by Sir Thomas Heath. The 1921 book is still in print; Dartmouth Library dug wonderful dusty old tomes from storage for the rest. I also watched an enjoyable lecture on Archimedes in "Great Thinkers, Great Theorems" by Professor William Dunham (Great Courses series) and read some entries in Wikipedia.