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The Big Book Drop - 471!

'The guns of Archimedes' by William Swayne (1870)


Many have questioned the facts recorded by several historians, concerning the surprising effects of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, by means of which the Roman galleys besieging Syracuse were consumed to ashes.

Descartes, in particular, discredited the story as fabulous; but Kircher made many experiments with a view of testing its credibility. He tried the effect of a number of plane mirrors; and, with five mirrors of the same size, placed in a frame, he contrived to throw the rays reflected from them to the same spot, at the distance of more than 100 feet; and by this means he produced such a degree of heat, as led him to conclude that, by increasing their number, he could have set fire to inflammable substances at a greater distance. He likewise made a voyage to Syracuse, in company with his pupil Schottius, in order to examine the place of the alleged transaction; and they were both of opinion, that the galleys of Marcellus could not have been more than thirty paces from Archimedes' mirrors.

M. Buffon also constructed a machine, consisting of a number of mirrors, by which he seems to have revived the secret of Archimedes, and to have vindicated the credit of history in this respect. His experiment was first made with twenty-four mirrors, which readily set fire to combustible matter composed of pitch and tow, and laid on a deal board at the distance of seventy-two feet. He further pursued the attempt by framing a kind of polyhedron, consisting of 168 pieces of plane looking-glass, each six inches square; and by means of this machine, some boards of beech-wood were set on fire at the distance of 150 feet, and a silver plate was melted at the distance of 60 feet. This machine, in the next stage of its improvement, contained 360 plane mirrors, each eight inches long and six broad, mounted on a frame eight feet high and seven broad. With twelve of these mirrors, light combustible matter was kindled at the distance of twenty feet; with forty-five of them, at the same distance, a large tin vessel was melted, and with 117, a thin piece of silver. When the whole machine was employed, all the metals and metallic minerals were melted at the distance of twenty-five and even of forty feet. Wood was kindled in a clear sky at the distance of 210 feet. M. Buffon afterwards constructed a machine which contained 400 mirrors, each six inches square, with which he could melt lead and tin at the distance of 140 feet.

But perhaps the most powerful burning mirror ever constructed, was that of Mr. Parker, an eminent glass manufacturer of London; it was made in the begining of this century by one Penn, an ingenious artisan of Islington. He erected an outhouse at the bottom of his garden, for the purpose of carrying on his operations, and at length succeeded in producing, at a cost of £700, a burning lens of a diameter of three feet, whose powers were astonishing. The most hard and solid substances of the mineral world, such as platina, iron, steel, flint, &c., were melted in a few seconds, on being exposed to its immense focus. A diamond weighing ten grains, exposed to this lens for thirty minutes, was reduced to six grains, during which operation it opened and foliated like the leaves of a flower, and emitted whitish fumes; when closed again, it bore a polish, and retained its form. Ten cut garnets, taken from a bracelet, began to run into each other in a few seconds, and at last formed one globular garnet. The clay used by Wedgewood to make his pyrometric test ran in a few seconds into a white enamel; and several specimens of lavas, and other volcanic productions, on being exposed to the focus of the lens, yielded to its power.

A subscription was proposed in London to raise the sum of 700 guineas, in order to indemnify the inventor for the expense he had incurred in its construction, and retain it in England; but, through the failure of the subscription, and other concurring circumstances, Mr. Parker was induced to dispose of it to Captain Mackintosh, who accompanied Lord Macartney in his celebrated embassy to China; and the mirror, much to the loss and regret of European science, was left at Pekin.

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In 1841, M. Delectuze discovered, among the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci, an entry carrying a knowledge of the steam-engine, applied to warfare, to at least as far back as the fifteenth century. He has published in the Artiste, a notice of the life of Leonardo, to which he adds a fac-simile of a page of one of his manuscripts, containing five pen-and-ink sketches of details of the apparatus of a Steam Gun, with an explanatory note on what he designates the "Architonnere." The entry is as follows: 

Invention of Archimedes. The architonnere is a machine of fine copper, which throws balls with a loud report and great force. It is used in the following manner: One-third of the instrument contains a large quantity of charcoal fire. When the water is well heated, a screw at the top of the vessel which contains the water must be made quite tight. On closing the screw above, all the water will escape below, will descend into the heated portion of the instrument, and be immediately converted into a vapour so abundant and powerful, that it is wonderful to see its force, and hear the noise it produces. This machine will carry a ball a talent in weight.

It is worthy of remark that Leonardo da Vinci, far from claiming the merit of this invention for himself or the men of his time, attributes it to Archimedes.

The Steam Gun of our time has been an exhibition-room wonder; and the prediction of the Duke of Wellington that it would fail in warfare, has never been, and is never likely to be, tested.


Extracted from Anecdotes of Invention and Discovery (New York: William W. Swayne, 1870)

Image: Wall painting from the Uffizi Gallery, Stanzino delle Matematiche, in Florence, Italy, showing the Greek mathematician Archimedes' mirror being used to burn Roman military ships. Painted in 1600.