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During the dot-com boom, software engineers became celebrities, fêted by the press. Back in 400 B.C., another class of technicians rose to rock-star prominence: Catapult engineers. Catapults were the WMDs of the preChristian era, revolutionizing war by allowing armies to destroy city walls — and lob the flu-infected severed heads of vanquished foes back into their loved one’s front yards. Nice.

Anyway, Serafina Cuomo, of the Imperial College London’s Center for the History of Science, recently wrote a paper for Science called “The Sinews of War: Ancient Catapults”, which be the coolest title of any academic paper ever. The official term for catapult science is “belopoietics” — with poietike meaning “making of”, and belos meaning “projectile or projectile-throwing device”. Apparently, the big scientific breakthrough was when early scientists realized that all parts of the catapult were proportional to the torsion springs. Once they figured that out, they had some pretty badass stuff on their hands — as an excellent story in National Geographic News reports:

The fearsome machines terrorized battlefields and sieges until the proliferation of gunpowder. Their power was impressive and terrifying. Roman catapults could hurl 60-pound (27-kilogram) boulders some 500 feet (150 meters). Archimedes’ machines were said to have been able to throw stones three times as heavy.

(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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