Archimedes War Machines: The Giant Claw, Catapults, and Death Ray

Archimedes War Machines: The Giant Claw, Catapults, and Death Ray
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Archimedes: History and Mathematical Discoveries

One of the greatest mathematicians of his age, Archimedes of Syracuse is better known for his war machines which utilized mathematic principles to bring about the destruction of the Roman army. Born the son of an aristocrat in 287 B.C., Archimedes spent a large part of his youth studying mathematics in Alexandria, Egypt. He is responsible for discovering the most accurate approximation of pi in his time, for devising a method of measuring the volume of irregularly shaped objects, and for finding a way to take the measurement of a circle. Archimedes’s discoveries and the books he wrote on the subjects of his discoveries have led to him being known as one of the three greatest mathematicians of Ancient Greece, and perhaps one of the greatest mathematicians ever known.


Archimedes: War Machines Overview

Though well-known for his mathematical discoveries, other achievements are often mentioned in reference to Archimedes: war machines. He utilized his war machines in defense of Syracuse, his home, against the Roman army. Archimedes used his knowledge of mathematics and physics principles to create war machines that disabled Roman ships by plucking them out of the water with a giant claw or by setting them on fire with his death ray. He also created catapults to launch timbers and other heavy objects at ships in the distance.

Archimedes’s Giant Claw

Archimedes war machine, the giant claw was quite a feat of brute strength and engineering. After using heavy stones to drive back the Romans from the bows of their ships, a giant claw attached to a heavy chain would be let down and securely attached to the prow of the ship. Then, a giant lever was pressed down, a feat which required the strength of nearly the whole of Syracuse, causing the prow of the ship to be lifted up out of the water making the ship stand on its stern. Then, using a rope and pulley system the giant claw and chain would suddenly be loosed. The result, in many cases, was the capsizing of the ship or the plunging of the ship into the water where it was quickly filled and sunk.

Archimedes’s Catapults

Making use of his vast mathematical knowledge, Archimedes designed a catapult system to launch rocks, timbers, and other heavy objects over the great distance between the city walls and moored enemy ships. The most basic form of catapult utilizes a winched-down bucket into which the projectile is placed. When the bucket is released, the built-up pressure results in the launching of the projectile over great distances. Another form of catapult is the trebuchet that utilizes a weighted beam and sling which swings in an arc, launching heavy stones and timbers far enough to destroy moored enemy ships.The Romans were so impressed by this invention that, following the siege of Syracuse, they took one of Archimedes’s catapults back with them to replicate for their own use.

Archimedes’s Death Ray

Also referred to as the burning mirror, Archimedes’s death ray utilized concentrated rays of the sun to set Roman ships on fire. Archimedes arranged a series of mirrors reflecting sunlight into one concentrated stream which, in time, was said to have set fire to the Roman sails and masts. A great deal of controversy surrounds this Archimedes war machine and it is uncertain whether it actually worked.

Archimedes’s Death Ray

Archimedes' Death Ray


“The Mathematical Achievements and Methodologies of Archimedes,”

“Archimedes: Early Years and Mathematics,” Ron Kurtus, School for

“Archimedes' Claw,”