A Brief History of the Catapult

A catapult can be as small as an elastic band slingshot used to hurl small stones or as large as the
90 metre (300 feet) long units used to launch fighter jets from an aircraft carrier. Let us see how
the humble catapult made its journey over the millennia. Like many scientific inventions, which are
now thankfully used for peaceful purposes, its origins are ensnared in the history of violent war.

The catapult was invented around 400 BC in the ancient Greek town of Syracus. But what was the need to invent it and what difference did it make? During those times, the only way you could
inflict damage in a battle was by getting very close to the opponent’s army or fort, which would
obviously result in high casualties for the aggressor. Even arrows could not hit enough of something
more than 100 metres away to disable them. Catapults allowed warriors to inflict damage without
risking themselves. They were frighteningly accurate, could cover a distance that no bow could
ever propel an arrow – say up to 700 metres – and they could target soldiers guarding the forts from
a long distance. The defenders too could do an even better job by placing the catapults where they
wanted, say on the ramparts of the fort, and taking down the enemies before they could use their
catapults.

 

 

After the catapult came the ballista, which could hurl projectiles even further; and this was followed
in quick succession by the trebuchet, which could throw heavier projectiles over a larger distance. It was a major siege warfare weapon, used to inflict damage on forts.

These three types of catapults ruled the roost for centuries, with lighter and more powerful itera-
tions being developed throughout that time, until gunpowder was invented in the second millenni-
um by the Chinese… However, it was not until the Europeans accessed gunpowder in the early 14th century that more powerful weapons such as cannons were built.

Due to the energy of the gunpowder hurling projectiles, such as stones or iron balls with great
speed and force, they were far more devastating than catapults and its ilk ever were. However, a
cannon had its own limitations. A newer type of fort, called a bastion, was built with sloped walls
and filled with earth (mud) and bricks and the thick forts were hard to crack (instead of the earlier
ones that had flat wall of stones, watch towers and so on). The attackers were still looking for
newer siege weapons to bring down forts.

A more evolved artillery known as mortars and howitzers were developed in the late 16th century.
Howitzers were developed as a medium-trajectory weapon between that of the flat trajectory
(direct fire) of cannon and the high trajectory (indirect fire) of mortars. Originally intended for use
in siege warfare (the forts were besieged and were expected to fall after a prolonged siege), they
were particularly useful for delivering cast iron shells filled with gunpowder or incendiary materials
into the interior of fortifications. Howitzers could be fired at a wide variety of angles. Then folks
across the world stopped building traditional forts that took decades to complete and consumed humongous building material and labour. And thus came an end to these more traditional weapons of warfare.

Let’s also be thankful that catapults and their derivatives are confined to the science classroom and ThinkTac TACtivities these days….