Catapults Invented Before Theory Explained Them

Catapults changed the strategy of war, allowing previously impermeable cities to be attacked. (Image credit:

Ancient Greek craftsmen didn't need fancy math to cobble together the first catapult, a new study of ancient texts suggests. Archimedes' laws and theories just helped make the weapon better.

The first catapult in Europe flung into action around the fourth century B.C., prior to the invention of mathematical models that revolutionized ancient technologies, said Mark Schiefsky, a Harvard University classics professor who led the study.

"It seems that the early stages of catapult development did not involve any mathematical theory at all," Schiefsky said. "We are talking about so-called torsion artillery, basically an extension of the simple bow by means of animal sinews into something like the crossbow."

When thinkers like the ancient Greek mathematician and engineer Archimedes came along in the third century B.C., devices such as the catapult were merely refined with mathematical theories and made more precise, the researchers found. In the case of the catapult, the weapon became all the more powerful and had an important political impact on warfare in the ancient world.

The catapult got special attention from kings because it was an effective weapon, allowing previously impermeable cities to be attacked.

"These machines changed the course of history," Schiefsky said.

No dummies

Before the mathematical models were figured out by Archimedes and his contemporaries, it was assumed that craftsmen didn't have enough theoretical knowledge to construct contraptions such as the catapult and scale balance, Schiefsky said. Delving through technical books—such as instruction manuals—going as far back as the fifth century B.C., Schiefsky and a team from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin discovered the ancients were, in fact, building the machines anyway.

“They didn’t all go to Plato’s Academy to learn geometry, and yet they were able to construct precisely calibrated devices,” Schiefsky said, adding that craftsmen combined some improvisational trial and error with years of practice to make their machines functional.

The steelyard, which used unequal arms and weights to weigh items, was one device in use well before the advent of the math that explained it. It was a simple case of necessity being the mother of invention, with things like meat needing to be weighed and some method required to do so, Schiefsky said.

Athenians also understood the mechanics behind a basic pulley system well before Archimedes came along and invented the compound pulley, which the Greeks famously used to hoist and topple enemy ships during battles at sea.

Fine tuning

When the mathematical theories were developed, construction became much more systematic, Schiefsky said. The researchers found a distinct period in the ancient texts when the new ways of thinking were incorporated into catapult design, for example.

"At some point in the third century B.C., as a result of a process of intensive testing and experimentation fostered by the Alexandrian kings, a standard method for constructing these devices was developed," Schiefsky told LiveScience.

"This method involved a fairly complex mathematical procedure (the extraction of a cube root) and seems to reflect the effort to apply geometry to an important engineering problem," he said.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.