When it comes to killing each other, we humans owe ourselves credit for ingenuity. Long before the Christian era, we were designing elaborate and effective instruments of mayhem — although it turns out that the “flaming death ray” attributed to Archimedes wasn’t one of them. I learned about that this week in a story in the Christian Science Monitor. Although that story was about something that Archimedes did not accomplish, it still left me impressed yet again with the genius of people in what to us are ancient times.

Archimedes was born around 287 BC in Siracusa (Syracuse), Sicily, which was a Greek colony at the time. In terms of intellect, he was in the same category as Leonardo, Newton, and Einstein, and he did groundbreaking work in mathematics, astronomy, physics and engineering. Like many of the ancients, Archimedes is the subject of some stories that are either only partly true, possibly true but undocumented, or simply false.

Archimedes' "death ray" directed at a Roman ship

According to one tale, apparently first known in the Middle Ages, Archimedes designed a system in which mirrors were used to direct concentrated beams of sunlight at Roman ships, causing them to catch fire. This supposedly occurred during a siege of Siracusa that lasted from 214 to 212 BC, the Second Punic War. Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier in 212 during that siege.

The Monitor story reports on new findings that debunk the “death ray” story but propose an alternate explanation that, to my mind, is no less impressive.


According to the CSM, studies done at the University of Naples have indicated that it is more likely that Archimedes used — are you ready for this? — steam cannons to fire at the Roman vessels:

“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.”

The story cites some supporting authorities for this idea, including Leonardo Da Vinci, who spent a lot of his own time dreaming up horrible ways for people to kill each other in battle. (See my June 8 blog entry for more on Leonardo’s diabolical side.)

While I’m being a little flippant about this, I never tire of learning about the accomplishments of our forbears in the distant past. I was amused by the headline on the Monitor’s story, which said that Archimedes’ death rays were probably “just a cannon.” Just a cannon – two centuries before the birth of Jesus. Reading about people like Archimedes reminds me of the potential of the human mind — and of how much more I might accomplish with my own if I were to make the effort.

You can read the Monitor’s story by clicking HERE.

Portrait of Archimedes by Domenico Fetti (1620)