Catapult
Overview
 
A catapult is a device used to throw or hurl a projectile
Projectile
A projectile is any object projected into space by the exertion of a force. Although a thrown baseball is technically a projectile too, the term more commonly refers to a weapon....

 a great distance without the aid of explosive devices—particularly various types of ancient and medieval siege engine
Siege engine
A siege engine is a device that is designed to break or circumvent city walls and other fortifications in siege warfare. Some have been operated close to the fortifications, while others have been used to attack from a distance. From antiquity, siege engines were constructed largely of wood and...

s. Although the catapult has been used since ancient times, it has proven to be one of the most effective mechanisms during warfare. The word 'catapult' comes from the Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 'catapulta', which in turn comes from the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 καταπέλτης (katapeltēs), itself from (kata), "downwards" + πάλλω (pallō), "to toss, to hurl".
Encyclopedia
A catapult is a device used to throw or hurl a projectile
Projectile
A projectile is any object projected into space by the exertion of a force. Although a thrown baseball is technically a projectile too, the term more commonly refers to a weapon....

 a great distance without the aid of explosive devices—particularly various types of ancient and medieval siege engine
Siege engine
A siege engine is a device that is designed to break or circumvent city walls and other fortifications in siege warfare. Some have been operated close to the fortifications, while others have been used to attack from a distance. From antiquity, siege engines were constructed largely of wood and...

s. Although the catapult has been used since ancient times, it has proven to be one of the most effective mechanisms during warfare. The word 'catapult' comes from the Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 'catapulta', which in turn comes from the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 καταπέλτης (katapeltēs), itself from (kata), "downwards" + πάλλω (pallō), "to toss, to hurl". Catapults were invented by the ancient Greeks.

Greek and Roman catapults

The early history of the catapult and the crossbow in Greece
Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

 are closely intertwined. Primitive catapults were essentially “the product of relatively straightforward attempts to increase the range and penetrating power of missiles by strengthening the bow which propelled them”. The historian Diodorus Siculus
Diodorus Siculus
Diodorus Siculus was a Greek historian who flourished between 60 and 30 BC. According to Diodorus' own work, he was born at Agyrium in Sicily . With one exception, antiquity affords no further information about Diodorus' life and doings beyond what is to be found in his own work, Bibliotheca...

 (fl. 1st century BC), described the invention of a mechanical arrow firing catapult (katapeltikon) by a Greek task force in 399 BC. The weapon was soon after employed against Motya (397 BC), a key Carthaginian stronghold in Sicily
Sicily
Sicily is a region of Italy, and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the surrounding minor islands, it constitutes an autonomous region of Italy, the Regione Autonoma Siciliana Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature,...

. Diodorus is assumed to have drawn his description from the highly rated history of Philistus
Philistus
Philistus , son of Archomenidas, was Greek historian of Sicily. Philistus was born at Syracuse about the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. He was a faithful supporter of the elder Dionysius, and commander of the citadel. Cicero who had a high opinion of his work, calls him the miniature Thucydides...

, a contemporary of the events then. The introduction of crossbows however, can be dated further back: According to the inventor Hero of Alexandria
Hero of Alexandria
Hero of Alexandria was an ancient Greek mathematician and engineerEnc. Britannica 2007, "Heron of Alexandria" who was active in his native city of Alexandria, Roman Egypt...

 (fl. 1st c. AD), who referred to the now lost works of the 3rd century BC engineer Ctesibius
Ctesibius
Ctesibius or Ktesibios or Tesibius was a Greek inventor and mathematician in Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt. He wrote the first treatises on the science of compressed air and its uses in pumps...

, this weapon was inspired by an earlier foot-held crossbow, called the gastraphetes
Gastraphetes
The gastraphetes was a hand-held crossbow used by the Ancient Greeks. It was described in the 1st century AD by the Greek author Heron of Alexandria in his work Belopoeica, which draws on an earlier account of the famous Greek engineer Ctesibius...

, which could store more energy than the Greek bows. A detailed description of the gastraphetes, or the “belly-bow”, along with a watercolor drawing, is found in Heron's technical treatise Belopoeica.

A third Greek author, Biton (fl. 2nd c. BC), whose reliability has been positively reevaluated by recent scholarship, described two advanced forms of the gastraphetes, which he credits to Zopyros, an engineer from southern Italy
Taranto
Taranto is a coastal city in Apulia, Southern Italy. It is the capital of the Province of Taranto and is an important commercial port as well as the main Italian naval base....

. Zopyrus has been plausibly equated with a Pythagorean
Pythagoreanism
Pythagoreanism was the system of esoteric and metaphysical beliefs held by Pythagoras and his followers, the Pythagoreans, who were considerably influenced by mathematics. Pythagoreanism originated in the 5th century BCE and greatly influenced Platonism...

 of that name who seems to have flourished in the late 5th century BC. He probably designed his bow-machines on the occasion of the sieges of Cumae
Cumae
Cumae is an ancient Greek settlement lying to the northwest of Naples in the Italian region of Campania. Cumae was the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy , and the seat of the Cumaean Sibyl...

 and Milet between 421 BC and 401 BC. The bows of these machines already featured a winched pull back system and could apparently throw two missiles at once.

Philo of Byzantium provides probably the most detailed account on the establishment of a theory of belopoietics (“belos” = projectile; “poietike” = (art) of making) circa 200 BC. The central principle to this theory was that “all parts of a catapult, including the weight or length of the projectile, were proportional to the size of the torsion springs”. This kind of innovation is indicative of the increasing rate at which geometry and physics were being assimilated into military enterprises.

From the mid-fourth century BC onwards, evidence of the Greek use of arrow-shooting machines becomes more dense and varied: Arrow firing machines (katapaltai) are briefly mentioned by Aeneas Tacticus
Aeneas Tacticus
Aeneas Tacticus was one of the earliest Greek writers on the art of war.According to Aelianus Tacticus and Polybius, he wrote a number of treatises on the subject. The only extant one, How to Survive under Siege , deals with the best methods of defending a fortified city...

 in his treatise on siegecraft written around 350 BC. An extant inscription from the Athenian
Athens
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

 arsenal, dated between 338 and 326 BC, lists a number of stored catapults with shooting bolts of varying size and springs of sinews. The later entry is particularly noteworthy as it constitutes the first clear evidence for the switch to torsion
Torsion (mechanics)
In solid mechanics, torsion is the twisting of an object due to an applied torque. In sections perpendicular to the torque axis, the resultant shear stress in this section is perpendicular to the radius....

 catapults which are more powerful than the flexible crossbows and came to dominate Greek and Roman
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 artillery design thereafter. This move to torsion springs was likely spurred by the engineers of Philip II of Macedonia. Another Athenian inventory from 330-329 BC includes catapult bolts with heads and flights. As the use of catapults became more commonplace, so did the training required to operate them. Many Greek children were instructed in catapult usage, as evidenced by “a 3rd Century B.C. inscription from the island of Ceos in the Cyclades [regulating] catapult shooting competitions for the young”. Arrow firing machines in action are reported from Philip II
Philip II of Macedon
Philip II of Macedon "friend" + ἵππος "horse" — transliterated ; 382 – 336 BC), was a king of Macedon from 359 BC until his assassination in 336 BC. He was the father of Alexander the Great and Philip III.-Biography:...

's siege of Perinth (Thrace
Thrace
Thrace is a historical and geographic area in southeast Europe. As a geographical concept, Thrace designates a region bounded by the Balkan Mountains on the north, Rhodope Mountains and the Aegean Sea on the south, and by the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara on the east...

) in 340 BC. At the same time, Greek fortifications began to feature high towers with shuttered windows in the top, which could have been used to house anti-personnel arrow shooters, as in Aigosthena
Aigosthena
Aigosthena , also Egosthena, was an ancient Greek fortified city of Attica NW of the ancient city of Megara to which it belonged. The fortified port was built in a forested, hilly area beside the coast of the Gulf of Corinth. The walls of the ancient city are preserved to significant height...

. In Roman times machine known as an arcuballista was probably similar to the crossbow. Alexander the Great introduced the idea of using them to provide cover on the battlefield in addition to using them during sieges. Projectiles included both arrows and (later) stones that were sometimes lit on fire.

The Romans started to use catapults as arms for their wars against Syracuse
Syracuse, Italy
Syracuse is a historic city in Sicily, the capital of the province of Syracuse. The city is notable for its rich Greek history, culture, amphitheatres, architecture, and as the birthplace of the preeminent mathematician and engineer Archimedes. This 2,700-year-old city played a key role in...

, Macedon, Sparta and Aetolia (3rd–2nd century BC). Later the Romans used ballista
Ballista
The ballista , plural ballistae, was an ancient missile weapon which launched a large projectile at a distant target....

 catapults on their warships.

Medieval catapults

Castle
Castle
A castle is a type of fortified structure built in Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages by European nobility. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble...

s and fortified walled cities were common during this period - and catapults were used as a key siege weapon against them. As well as attempting to breach the walls, incendiary missiles could be thrown inside—or early biological warfare
Biological warfare
Biological warfare is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war...

 attempted with diseased carcasses or putrid garbage catapulted over the wall
Wall
A wall is a usually solid structure that defines and sometimes protects an area. Most commonly, a wall delineates a building and supports its superstructure, separates space in buildings into rooms, or protects or delineates a space in the open air...

s.

Defensive techniques in the Middle Ages progressed to a point that rendered catapults ineffective for the most part. The Viking siege of Paris (885–6 A.D.) “saw the employment by both sides of virtually every instrument of siege craft known to the classical world, including a variety of catapults,” to little effect, resulting in failure.

The most widely used catapults throughout the Middle Ages were as follows:

Ballista
Ballista
The ballista , plural ballistae, was an ancient missile weapon which launched a large projectile at a distant target....

: Ballistas were similar to giant crossbows and were designed to work through torsion. The ammunition used were basically giant arrows or darts made from wood with an iron tip. These arrows were then shot “along a flat trajectory” at a target. Ballistas are notable for their high degree of accuracy, but also their lack of firepower compared to that of a Mangonel or Trebuchet. Because of their immobility, most Ballistas were constructed on site following a siege assessment by the commanding military officer.

Springald
Springald
A Springald is a late 12th century or early 13th century mechanical artillery device for throwing large bolts and less commonly stones or Greek fire, based around the design of a contemporary crossbow and a Greek ballista, but with inward swinging arms....

: The springald's design is similar to that of the Ballista's, in that it was effectively a crossbow propelled by tension. The Springald's frame was more compact, allowing for use inside tighter confines, such as the inside of a castle or tower. This compromised the firepower though, making it an anti-personnel weapon at best.

Mangonel
Mangonel
A mangonel was a type of catapult or siege engine used in the medieval period to throw projectiles at a castle's walls. The exact meaning of the term is debatable, and several possibilities have been suggested. Mangonel may also be indirectly referring to the 'mangon' a French hard stone found in...

: These machines were designed to throw heavy projectiles from a “bowl-shaped bucket at the end of its arm”. Mangonels were mostly used for “firing various missiles at fortresses, castles, and cities,” with a range of up to 1300 feet. These missiles included anything from stones to excrement to rotting carcasses. Mangonels were relatively simple to construct, and eventually wheels were added to increase mobility.

Onager
Onager (siege weapon)
The onager was a Roman siege engine, which derived its name from the kicking action of the machine, similar to that of an onager , it was created as a simpler, cheaper version of the ballista. The Onager is a type of catapult that uses torsional pressure, generally from twisted rope, to store...

: Mangonels are also sometimes referred to as Onagers. Onager catapults initially launched projectiles from a sling, which was later changed to a “bowl-shaped bucket”. The word 'Onager' is derived from the Greek word 'onagros' for wild ass, referring to the “kicking motion and force” that were recreated in the Mangonel's design. In terms of historical records, there's not much to go on. The most detailed account of Mangonel use is from “Eric Marsden's translation of a text written by Ammianus Marcellius in the 4th Century AD” describing its construction and combat usage.

Trebuchet
Trebuchet
A trebuchet is a siege engine that was employed in the Middle Ages. It is sometimes called a "counterweight trebuchet" or "counterpoise trebuchet" in order to distinguish it from an earlier weapon that has come to be called the "traction trebuchet", the original version with pulling men instead of...

: Trebuchets were probably the most powerful catapult employed in the Middle Ages. The most commonly used ammunition were stones, but “darts and sharp wooden poles” could be substituted if necessary. The most effective kind of ammunition though involved fire, such as “firebrands, and deadly Greek Fire
Greek fire
Greek fire was an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines typically used it in naval battles to great effect as it could continue burning while floating on water....

”. Trebuchets came in two different designs: Traction, which were powered by people, or Counterpoise, where the people were replaced with “a weight on the short end”. The most famous historical account of trebuchet use dates back to the siege of Stirling Castle in 1304, when the army of Edward I constructed a giant trebuchet known as “Warwolf”, which then proceeded to “level a section of [castle] wall, successfully concluding the siege.”

Couillard
Trebuchet
A trebuchet is a siege engine that was employed in the Middle Ages. It is sometimes called a "counterweight trebuchet" or "counterpoise trebuchet" in order to distinguish it from an earlier weapon that has come to be called the "traction trebuchet", the original version with pulling men instead of...

: A simplified trebuchet, where the trebuchet's single counterweight is split, swinging on either side of a central support post.

Leonardo da Vinci's catapult: Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

 sought to improve the efficiency and range of earlier designs. His design incorporated used a large wooden leaf spring
Leaf spring
Originally called laminated or carriage spring, a leaf spring is a simple form of spring, commonly used for the suspension in wheeled vehicles...

 as an accumulator to power the catapult. Both ends of the bow are connected by a rope, similar to the design of a bow and arrow. The leaf spring was not used to pull the catapult armature directly, rather the rope was wound around a drum. The catapult armature was attached to this drum which would be turned until enough potential energy was stored in the deformation of the spring. The drum would then be disengaged from the winding mechanism, and the catapult arm would snap around. Though no records exist of this design being built during Leonardo's lifetime, contemporary enthusiasts have reconstructed it.

Modern use

The last large scale military use of catapults was during the trench warfare
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

 of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. During the early stages of the war, catapults were used to throw hand grenade
Hand grenade
A hand grenade is any small bomb that can be thrown by hand. Hand grenades are classified into three categories, explosive grenades, chemical and gas grenades. Explosive grenades are the most commonly used in modern warfare, and are designed to detonate after impact or after a set amount of time...

s across no man's land
No man's land
No man's land is a term for land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties that leave it unoccupied due to fear or uncertainty. The term was originally used to define a contested territory or a dumping ground for refuse between fiefdoms...

 into enemy trenches. (These were eventually replaced by small mortars
Mortar (weapon)
A mortar is an indirect fire weapon that fires explosive projectiles known as bombs at low velocities, short ranges, and high-arcing ballistic trajectories. It is typically muzzle-loading and has a barrel length less than 15 times its caliber....

).

Special variants called aircraft catapult
Aircraft catapult
An aircraft catapult is a device used to launch aircraft from ships—in particular aircraft carriers—as a form of assisted take off. It consists of a track built into the flight deck, below which is a large piston or shuttle that is attached through the track to the nose gear of the aircraft, or in...

s are used to launch planes from land bases and sea carriers when the takeoff runway is too short for a powered takeoff or simply impractical to extend. Ships also use them to launch torpedoes and deploy bombs against submarines.
Small catapults, referred to as traps, are still widely used to launch Clay targets into the air in the sport of Clay pigeon shooting
Clay pigeon shooting
Clay pigeon shooting, also known as clay target shooting, and formally known as Inanimate Bird Shooting, is the art of shooting at special flying targets, known as clay pigeons or clay targets, with a shotgun or any type of firearm....

.

Until recently, catapults were used by thrill-seekers to experience being catapulted through the air. The practice has been discontinued due to fatalities, when the participants failed to land onto the safety net.

Pumpkin Chunking
Pumpkin chunking
Pumpkin Chucking, or for rhyming purposes Pumpkin Chunking is the sport of hurling or 'chucking' a pumpkin by mechanical means for distance...

 is another widely popularized use, in which people compete to see who can launch a pumpkin the farthest by mechanical means (although the world record is held by a pneumatic air cannon).

In January 2011, popsci.com, the news blog version of Popular Science
Popular Science
Popular Science is an American monthly magazine founded in 1872 carrying articles for the general reader on science and technology subjects. Popular Science has won over 58 awards, including the ASME awards for its journalistic excellence in both 2003 and 2004...

 magazine reported a group of smugglers used a homemade catapult to deliver marijuana into the United States of America from Mexico
Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

. The machine was found 20 feet from the border fence with 4.4 pounds (2 kg) bales of marijuana ready to launch.

Models

Catapults of all types and sizes are being built for school science and history fairs, competitions or as a hobby. Catapult projects can inspire students to study different subjects including physics, engineering, science, math and history. These kits can be purchased from Renaissance Fair
Renaissance Fair
A Renaissance fair, Renaissance faire, or Renaissance festival is an outdoor weekend gathering, usually held in the United States, open to the public and typically commercial in nature, which emulates a historic period for the amusement of its guests. Some are permanent theme parks, others are...

s, or from several online stores.

See also

  • Siege engine
    Siege engine
    A siege engine is a device that is designed to break or circumvent city walls and other fortifications in siege warfare. Some have been operated close to the fortifications, while others have been used to attack from a distance. From antiquity, siege engines were constructed largely of wood and...

  • Onager (siege weapon)
    Onager (siege weapon)
    The onager was a Roman siege engine, which derived its name from the kicking action of the machine, similar to that of an onager , it was created as a simpler, cheaper version of the ballista. The Onager is a type of catapult that uses torsional pressure, generally from twisted rope, to store...

  • Trebuchet
    Trebuchet
    A trebuchet is a siege engine that was employed in the Middle Ages. It is sometimes called a "counterweight trebuchet" or "counterpoise trebuchet" in order to distinguish it from an earlier weapon that has come to be called the "traction trebuchet", the original version with pulling men instead of...

  • Ballista
    Ballista
    The ballista , plural ballistae, was an ancient missile weapon which launched a large projectile at a distant target....

  • Mangonel
    Mangonel
    A mangonel was a type of catapult or siege engine used in the medieval period to throw projectiles at a castle's walls. The exact meaning of the term is debatable, and several possibilities have been suggested. Mangonel may also be indirectly referring to the 'mangon' a French hard stone found in...

  • Slingshot
    Slingshot
    A slingshot, shanghai, flip, bean shooter or catapult is a small hand-powered projectile weapon. The classic form consists of a Y-shaped frame held in the off hand, with two rubber strips attached to the uprights. The other ends of the strips lead back to a pocket which holds the projectile...

  • Aircraft catapult
    Aircraft catapult
    An aircraft catapult is a device used to launch aircraft from ships—in particular aircraft carriers—as a form of assisted take off. It consists of a track built into the flight deck, below which is a large piston or shuttle that is attached through the track to the nose gear of the aircraft, or in...

  • Mass driver
    Mass driver
    A mass driver or electromagnetic catapult is a proposed method of non-rocket spacelaunch which would use a linear motor to accelerate and catapult payloads up to high speeds. All existing and contemplated mass drivers use coils of wire energized by electricity to make electromagnets. Sequential...


External links

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