When considering a catapult, perhaps the first image that comes to mind is a forked stick, a rubber band, and a rock comprising the timeless toy and tool known as a slingshot. Over many centuries, catapult technology evolved into something quite different than a small handheld object to launch rocks.
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Catapults evolved from simple slingshots to siege weapons. Today, catapults can be used to launch airplanes from aircraft carriers, or to demonstrate physics and mathematics to students.
A Brief History of Catapults
Catapults emerged in ancient Greece around 399 B.C., according to 1st-century B.C. historian Diodoros. A catapult featured in the siege of Motya in 397 B.C., forever changing artillery warfare. Catapults evolved from handheld compound bow devices called gastraphetes and larger bow machines. Torsion catapults arose around 50 years later. Used for firing arrows, these catapults, called euthytones, were made of wooden arms and frames with springs and a trigger mechanism. Stone-throwing catapults (palintones) represented a design shift. These catapults were much larger and could be rigged to shoot either arrows or stones. Eventually the word “ballista” became synonymous with palintone catapults. Much larger catapults arose, notably in A.D. 69 under the reign of Trajan, when a huge ballista was used to demolish an enemy line at the second battle of Cremona. One-armed stone projecting machines called scorpions then came into favor.
Weapons of War
The catapult dominated for centuries as a fear-inducing weapon of war. Catapults vaulted incendiary objects, arrows, stones of all sizes, and even corpses and vectors of pestilence into or over castle walls. Catapults represented objects of technological prowess as well as military might, and rulers celebrated the early engineers and mathematicians involved in making catapults. Prior to the advent of gunpowder’s regular use, catapults featured in an arms race of sorts among rulers. Catapults endured through the Middle Ages as siege weapons; even in World War I, catapults were used in trench warfare.
In the mid-20th century, catapults made their way to aircraft carriers. Enormous steam-powered catapults, hundreds of feet long, launched aircraft from the short runways of the carriers. The sheer size of steam catapults proved to be a liability, taking up significant space and requiring the perfect amount of steam to launch airplanes depending on their weight. In the 21st century, a new technology using aircraft catapults emerged: the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). EMALS does not require steam, but rather uses sleds that electromagnetically push and pull the catapult until the craft is airborne. These EMALS can operate in rapid succession and are more efficient than their steam-powered predecessors. They allow heavier airplanes to be launched from carriers, leading to increased range and strike capability.
Catapults in Education
Catapults represent excellent tools for various educational needs. With the preponderance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) school programs, catapults allow educators to demonstrate a broad range of discussion topics.
Educators use catapults to demonstrate physics with catapults’ projectile motion. Even the use of string and marshmallows gives students the opportunity to observe gravity as well as potential and kinetic energy at work. Testing catapult designs offers insight into material properties.
Catapults provide a real-world education in mathematics, particularly geometry and algebra. Launching a projectile with a catapult displays the geometric arc known as the parabola. In addition to calculating the force of gravity a projectile experiences, students can use quadratic equations to build a better catapult. Engaging students with real-world examples of catapults offers many opportunities to think outside the textbook, and encourages them to expand their approach to math and science problems.
Catapults as Entertainment
While the slingshot still holds its place as a classic toy example of catapults, there are larger and flashier forms of catapults that provide entertainment. Prevalent in autumn, “pumpkin chucking” or “punkin chunkin” uses catapults to launch pumpkins into the air. This has become an autumn tradition, with competitions and spectators celebrating an ancient technology in a fun new way.
- Hesperia: Ancient Catapults - Some Hypotheses Reexamined
- American Association for the Advancement of Science: Trebuchets and Their Modern Uses
- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO): How Catapults and Marshmallows Are Helping to Drive STEM Education in Schools
- The New York Times: How Catapults Married Science, Politics and War
- Air & Space Magazine: How Things Work: Electromagnetic Catapults
- Popular Science: China Is Betting Big on Electromagnetic Railguns and Catapults
- University of Colorado Boulder: Teach Engineering: Launch Into Learning: Catapults!
- AtlasObscura: Watch Pumpkins Get Launched by a Massive Slingshot and Trebuchet
- Edutopia: A Real Learning Curve: Catapults Demonstrate the Quadratic Equation
About the Author
J. Dianne Dotson is a science writer with a degree in zoology/ecology and evolutionary biology. She spent nine years working in laboratory and clinical research. A lifelong writer, Dianne is also a content manager and science fiction & fantasy novelist. Dianne features science as well as writing topics on her website, jdiannedotson.com.