Published: February 10 2008 on Helium
The catapult answered humanity's need to propel a missile effectively over a great distance with some "mechanical" assistance. It is essentially an offshoot of the crossbow and entails a machine that cannot be carried. Since ancient times, the style and size of this device has varied. But the main usage has always been some form of attack on a target, mostly in times of warfare.
The idea of the catapult comes from the humble sling shot. Some form of "twine" between the fork of a sturdy twig can hurl a stone with deadly accuracy. In the Bible, David's use of such a device against Goliath is only one record of many in ancient literatures.
China has the earliest known record of the catapult. In 3rd-4th century B.C. China, this catapult was much like a crossbow with a swinging arm mounted on a pivot. This appeared in what was known as the Warring States period of China's history. The Greek town of Syracuse in Sicily is another contender, about this time, for having the first catapult. This was in the era of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta and their allies. It was also the era of the tyrant Dionysios.
At this time, some sources claim that the term catapult referred to a "dart thrower" and a "ballista" referred to a stone thrower, but by the 4th century A.D. the two terms swapped meanings. www.en.wikipedia.org
The ballista is possibly the first large, siege-like catapult. It comprised "two wooden arms, tightly wound ropes and a cord to assist in the hurling of deadly projectiles, such as spears, at an enemy." www.medieval-castle-siege-weapons.com Phillip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, is credited with its first use in about 358B.C. when, at the tender age of 21, he assembled a formidable military force against the threatening Illyrians in the north. It included a phalanx bearing 6 meter long spears (deadly to run into) and the ballista created for extra destructive impact.
The mangonel or onager is the Romans' contribution to catapult history. The mangonel was not really an efficient weapon, because it could only hurl up to a 6lb weight and lots of its energy was wasted arcing high in the air before hitting the target. They were usually mounted on ships and hurled burning pitch to set fire to enemy ships.
The Romans also added wheels to the Greek ballista.
However, the deadliest catapult of all is accredited to 12th century France and became a popular weapon of choice for Christians and Muslims alike. It was known as the trebuchet. This siege machine used counterweights (up to 20 tons) to maximize the velocity of objects hurled. One dark use of this machine was to use people as missiles. "The trebuchet is also believed to be an early biological weapon, as armies would load the trebuchet with corpses riddled with diseases like the Black Plague and hurl them into areas under siege in the hopes of infecting large numbers of their enemies." www.thedigitalbeat.com Dead animals were sometimes a favored missile too.
France was the first European country to use catapults extensively in warfare. Her wars introduced the catapult to more of Europe. "Catapults history notes that the weapons were introduced to England in 1216 during the Siege of Dover - as were many other types of siege weapons. Louis the Dauphin of France crossed the Channel with a large force and laid siege to Dover Castle making a violent and incessant attack on the castle walls. He used the Catapults against the walls and men of Dover Castle." www.middle-ages.org.uk England adopted the catapult as a war machine shortly afterwards.
By the Middle Ages, 3 main forms of the catapult were in use for warfare. The ballista now looked like a giant crossbow, depending on tension for speed and accuracy. It relied on a straight trajectory. The mangonel and trebuchet relied on greatest area of impact from an arced trajectory. The mangonel launched missiles from a bowl-shaped bucket placed at the end of a long usually wooden arm of the mangonel. "The massive Trebuchet consisted of a lever and a sling and was capable of hurling stones weighing 200 pounds with a range of up to about 300 yards" www.middle-ages.org.uk One version, created by King Edward I's engineer in England, was regarded as the most powerful of the trebuchets. It was called Warwolf.
In the Middle Ages, right up to the wars of Napoleon in the early 19th century, various models of the trebuchet were created and utilized as war machines. The ballista was still used to hurl large rocks into castle walls with dubious accuracy, but with the possibility of deadly effect.
We may like to believe that catapult history officially terminated when cannons and guns evolved. But that is not strictly true. In World War I jungle warfare, bent trees were used as catapults. And in World War II, grenade catapults were utilized. Military aircraft are launched from ships, based on the catapult principle. Enthusiasts of war machines like to recreate working models of catapults.
And catapult amusements still exist. Rides in many carnivals use the catapult concept. In the rural town of Landsborough, 76km north of Brisbane, Australia, one of the tourist attractions is a Bungy Bullet. "Thrill-seekers may enjoy the sensation of being shot 50 metres in the air in just one second on the Bungy Bullet, attaining a thrust of 4 Gs. This is, in essence, an open capsule, securely seating two people, which is literally flung into the air via a huge catapult." www.smh.com.au
In the U.S. a "catapult car" competition is held annually.
Catapults may appear to be a simple project based on the laws of physics, but through history, the best models have won wars and saved countries. I find it strange though, that the Vikings, a warlike marauding people, have no record of using catapults. And the ancient Egyptian shadouf, used to get water from irrigation channels, is actually a form of catapult NOT used for warlike purposes.