Historical Science & Technology, Technology, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!)

The Catapult: OG Ballistics

Invented by those wacky ancient Greeks, the catapult is perhaps the most famous and widely-used projectile weapon launcher in history. Some scholars maintain that the catapult was not originally devised as a weapon, but it’s rather hard to imagine for what other purpose it might conceivably be used.

And, despite what your jerk of an uncle who inexplicably hates animals tries to tell you, it’s not called a “catapult” because it was used to throw cats. The name comes from the Greek words kata, meaning “downwards,” and paliō, meaning “to toss” or “to hurl.”


Crossbow Origins, Geometric Innovations

Much like the technically similar crossbow, early catapults were designed to increase the range and penetrating power of missiles. The design of the first catapults was based on that of the gastraphetes, a large, crossbow-style weapon.

The earliest known record of a catapult comes from the ancient Greek historian Philistus, who described a mechanical arrow-firing device created by the Greek military in roughly 399 BCE; the weapon was reportedly first used in battle against the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya, in Sicily in 397 BCE.

As mankind’s knowledge of geometry and physics grew, the catapult began to evolve quickly. Circa 200 BCE, Philo of Byzantium wrote a highly detailed description, stating that “all parts of a catapult, including the weight or length of the projectile, were proportional to the size of the torsion springs.”

These early catapults were used almost exclusively to fire multiple arrows at once. The device’s potential as a siege weapon was yet to be realized.

Realizing the Catapult’s Potential As A Siege Weapon

Castles and other fortifications became more common throughout the Medieval period. Instead of just firing arrows, catapults were modified to be more effective against these buildings. New designs were created for the launching of large boulders, flaming fire pots, diseased animals (in an early form of biological warfare), and other, more destructive projectiles.

During this period, new catapult designs took on a range of forms and functions. The Ballista was essentially a giant crossbow, built to fire huge, iron-tipped arrows with exceptional accuracy. Mangonels represent perhaps the most “generic” catapult type, with a large bowl-shaped bucket that could be loaded with nearly anything at the end of the throwing arm. The Trebuchet, one of the most effective and powerful catapults ever devised, used a counterweight at the opposite end of the throwing arm to launch heavy projectiles great distances.

Modern Catapults

Before the invention of mortars, catapults were used to launch grenades into and across no man’s land during World War I.

In trap or skeet shooting, clay pigeons are flung using a small, modified version of a catapult.

Increasingly popular “pumpkin chunking” (or “punkin chunkin”) contests challenge competitors to build their own catapults with the aim of launching pumpkins record distances. Because this is America, there is a Punkin Chunkin World Championship.

Photo credit: Tony Dowler / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)