Trade in that phaser, Capt. Kirk

July 2, 2010


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)


3 Responses to “Trade in that phaser, Capt. Kirk”

  1. Siracusa was, for a time, the most powerful city-state in the world of ancient Greece. Some say it was also the most beautiful. (I’ve been there twice, but having never visited the nation that is now Greece, I must agree based solely on my Sicilian bias.) There can be no doubt, however, that Archimedes was one of those rare geniuses whose mind excelled in many different fields.

    By the way, have you been to Pompeii? If not, I’m sure you would enjoy it, especially given your interest in ancient ingenuity.

    Thank you for another fascinating post.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I have been to Pompeii. One of the most impressive engineering things from the ancient world that I have seen is the steam bath constructed by Herod the Great on the Masada plateau near the Dead Sea. It is in the form of a dome made of stone blocks. Inside there was a false floor. The space underneath it was flooded and the water was heated to the boiling point by a system of fireboxes and bellows. Masada is between 1400 and 1800 feet high, and any water used at the top has to be carried there. That’s why Herod designed the bath the way he did. The steam would condense on the dome and run back down under the floor. Herod was recycling water around 35 BC.

  2. Scientist Says:

    […] Posted in Ancient history, European history, Science | Tagged Archimedes, inventions, inventors, Leonardo Da Vinci, weapons of war | 2 Comments » […]

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