Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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6-Feb-2004

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Catapults -- popular science in ancient times



This historically acurate model is based on the ancient Roman catapult, known as the Onager. It is capable of hurling small projectiles, such as tennis balls and small stones, from 20 to 100 feet. Image courtesy of Ron Toms, www.catapultkits.com.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

If you're ever caught launching a spoonful of mashed potatoes across the dining room table, you might argue that you're following in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

We don't typically think of science as being important in these ancient societies. But building catapults, which could hurl stones, arrows or other objects great distances, was a highly respected career and a science in itself, according to Serafina Cuomo of Imperial College London, in the United Kingdom. She explains the importance of catapult science during antiquity in an essay in the 06 February 2004 issue of the journal Science.

Until the discovery of gunpowder, the catapult was the most powerful weapon an army could have. In the fourth century B.C., catapults spread around the Mediterranean like wildfire. The construction of catapults is known as "belopoietics." (Poietike means "making of" and belos means "projectile or projectile-throwing device.")

Designing a catapult that could pitch a boulder across a distance of approximately 50 feet required a good understanding of math, physics and engineering. Some rulers would gather the best craftsmen from all the cities under their reign and award prizes to the best catapult designs. In her essay, Cuomo explains that catapult engineers were proud of their skills and traveled across different countries to share their ideas with each other.

"Both the engineers and their achievements were an important part of ancient society," Cuomo writes.

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