BEIJING, Oct. 10 (Xinhuanet) -- Trial and error or hit and miss? Either way you look at it, catapults were invented by ancient Greek craftsmen and put into practice long before the advent of mathematical models that revolutionized ancient technologies, a study of ancient texts suggests.
"It seems that the early stages of catapult
development did not involve any mathematical theory at all," said Mark
Schiefsky, a Harvard University classics professor who led the study. "We are
talking about so-called torsion artillery, basically an extension of the simple
bow by means of animal sinews into something like the crossbow."
When Greek mathematician and engineer Archimedes
happened along in the third century B.C., devices such as the catapult were
merely refined with mathematical theories and made more accurate, the
researchers discovered. The precise refinements also made the
weapon more powerful and had an important political impact on warfare in
the ancient world.
The catapult got special attention from kings because
it was an effective weapon, allowing previously impermeable cities to be
"These machines changed the course of history,"
Before the mathematical models were figured out by
Archimedes and his contemporaries, it was assumed that craftsmen didn't have
enough theoretical knowledge to make mechanical devices such as the
catapult and scale balance, Schiefsky said. Perusing technical books ¡ª such as
instruction manuals ¡ª going as far back as the fifth century B.C., Schiefsky and
a team from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin
discovered the ancients were, in fact, building the machines anyway.
"They didn't all go to Plato's Academy to learn
geometry, and yet they were able to construct precisely calibrated devices,"
Schiefsky said, adding that craftsmen combined some improvisational trial and
error with years of practice to make their machines functional.
When the mathematical theories were developed,
construction became much more systematic, Schiefsky said. For example, the
researchers found a distinct period in the ancient texts when the new ways of
thinking were incorporated into catapult design.
"At some point in the third century B.C., as a result
of a process of intensive testing and experimentation fostered by the
Alexandrian kings, a standard method for constructing these devices was
developed," Schiefsky told LiveScience.