Skip to comments.Study: Archimedes Set Roman Ships Afire with Cannons
Posted on 07/07/2010 8:20:04 AM PDT by SunkenCiv
Greek inventor Archimedes is said to have used mirrors to burn ships of an attacking Roman fleet. But new research suggests he may have used steam cannons and fiery cannonballs instead.
A legend begun in the Medieval Ages tells of how Archimedes used mirrors to concentrate sunlight as a defensive weapon during the siege of Syracuse, then a Greek colony on the island of Sicily, from 214 to 212 B.C. No contemporary Roman or Greek accounts tell of such a mirror device, however.
Both engineering calculations and historical evidence support use of steam cannons as "much more reasonable than the use of burning mirrors," said Cesare Rossi, a mechanical engineer at the University of Naples "Federico II," in Naples, Italy, who along with colleagues analyzed evidence of both potential weapons.
The steam cannons could have fired hollow balls made of clay and filled with something similar to an incendiary chemical mixture known as Greek fire in order to set Roman ships ablaze. A heated cannon barrel would have converted barely more than a tenth of a cup of water (30 grams) into enough steam to hurl the projectiles.
Channeling steam power
Italian inventor Leonardo da Vinci sketched a steam cannon in the late 15th century, which he credited to Archimedes, and several other historical accounts mention the device in connection with Archimedes.
Indirect evidence for the steam cannon also comes from the Greek-Roman historian Plutarch, who tells of a pole-shaped device that forced besieging Roman soldiers to flee at one point from the walls of Syracuse.
The Greek-Roman physician and philosopher Galen similarly mentioned a burning device used against the Roman ships, but used words that Rossi said cannot translate into "burning mirror."
(Excerpt) Read more at livescience.com ...
It's always been interesting; in the 1980s (I think it was) someone tried making bunches of polished bronze mirrors to try to set a dummy ship on fire using focused sunlight, and it didn't work. Nice that someone is taking the ancients at their word, and I'd hate to see Archimedes Screwed (/rimshot!) out of the credit, but this doesn't seem like any big deal to me, whether true or not. Used a catapault to chuck an incendiary onto attackers, whoa. :')
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Could this be related, somehow, to so-called “Greek Fire”?
A recent Mythbusters tried the same thing - a human could stand unprotected in the focus. The shields were just too diffuse.
Steam Punk ping!!! THe Japanese had steam driven weapons in a anime series I am a big fan of.
You must be writing Barry's script.
Given that the article said “The steam cannons could have fired hollow balls made of clay and filled with something similar to an incendiary chemical mixture known as Greek fire...” I’m going to go out on a limb and say “yes”.
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Interesting story about Archimedes. The Roman general who was beseiging the city wanted to spare Archimedes but the soldiers found Archimedes working on a math problem and killed him anyway.
I knew I should have pinged you. :’)
Blinded by the light, wrapped up like a deuce... that’s got something going for it, blind the attackers, then launch the darts, spears, arrows, and other projectiles while they’re disoriented and no one can give the warning to raise shields. Thwack.
Greek Fire from the Chronicle of Ioannis Skylitzis, mid-12th mid-13th century, Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid
Thank you for that article. Once I get home from my deployment, one of these will be built on our AZ property as an intellectual exercise. My five children will get a hoot from it.
Oops. Didn’t read far enough! Thanks, Lee.
Always thought it would be pretty hard to coordinate a group to be able to focus on one spot. Especially at what is probably a moving target.
They are still using Archimedes Screws to draw water from the Nile in Egypt. At least they were in the early 1980’s.
Makes for great confusion if you can't see where you are going. Could have even used the mirrors to “guide” ships into a killing lane.
Since the mirrors couldn't set the ships on fire, blinding the pilots and overheating the crew would make them less efficient at attack.
Exactly. They sit and spin.
It brings a misty eyed tear to recall there was a time when, not only were Americans familiar with the name ‘Archimedes’, but were thought competent enough to handle hot things without warning labels and build cannons.
Those, my friends, were the days!
I’ve seen other work that suggested the possibility of focused light on Roman ships was feasible at the time. The real problem with this is the Greek Fire part. It’s certainly possible that Archimedes used the stuff, or flaming arrows, etc. to attack the fleet. But no one knows how Greek Fire worked, either.
That’s true. Whatever the formula was, it was lost during the Middle Ages. Its last known use was by the Byzantines against the Saracens.
Ultimately, the point is, the Romans took the city, and Archimedes got chopped. :’)
I think the Archimedean screw was probably attributed to him, but antedates him by some years. The Egyptians didn’t invent it, apparently, they used (in ancient times, and still do) the shadoof (sp?).
I thought the Egyptians used the same type of device/technology to raise the Pyramids. One look and you can see how screwed up they are. Shadouf, shadouf, bod-da-da bod-da-da, shadouf, shadouf
Methinks you might like this link, article, videos
Nat Geo related, I think:
underground, under water route to dry rooms, underground temples, road . . .
I hate to dispute myth busters, but if the mirror is concave, much like the mirrors used in reflector telescopes, you could set quite a few things on fire and I wouldn’t want to stand in the focus. Bronze mirrors would probably not work, but real mirrors would. At the very least a blinding light could temporarily disorient sailors of opposing ships.
A couple of years ago I watched an episode of Mythbusters where they "proved" that you cannot split one arrow with another arrow.
The next day, I watched a show on the History Channel where an expert archer did exactly what Mythbusters claimed could not be done.
The Mythbusters' biggest issue with the "death ray," as I recall, was actually persuading enemy vessels to sit still long enough to do any real damage. They could scorch the wood, but not set it on fire.
Well, first of all, they were investigating the myth that Robin Hood (or his non-fictional, 12th-century equivalent) could have split an arrow. So off the bat they were limited to the kinds of arrows a medieval archer would have on hand. They acknowledged that you could split arrows made of bamboo or composite materials, if I remember right. But of course Robin wouldn't have had those materials on hand: his arrows were made of wood.
The biggest problem they discovered with wooden arrows was that they tend to split along the grain, so if it isn't parallel to the length of the arrow, then the arrow doing the splitting won't make it all the way up the length of the shaft. I would assume from that, that an arrow with just the right grain could be split.
I was actually surprised that they didn't give a verdict of "plausible" for this myth (under the right conditions, however improbable).
A Shadoof system might have delivered the volume, but the whole structure would have looked like a building site, cranes and workers instead of vegetation. Whereas a waterscrew system would have been visually non-obtrusive, and the workers could have been hidden below ground.
Thanks Oztrich Boy.
Should have guessed you’d be light years ahead of me.
It ain't "harmless" if you put somebody's eye out with that thing!
Wonder how well it would work with plastic sabots & a load of BBs?
Hmmmm...a 6' length of 2" pipe....
Strange that it wasn’t until AFTER 1492 that someone came up with the Spud Gun.
Now you know my dirty little secret: I’ve been growing ammunition; not food.
You’ll need both I’m sure, but meanwhile, I think you’ve made the right choice. :’)