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The Engineering Beauty of the Trebuchet
By John Corff, Alex Grunstein, Tory Passalaqua, Aaron Salman, Stuart Pollock, Jon Wheeler and Jessi Johnson
New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge (2004)
Introduction: The word “trebuchet” sounds like something you would find on a menu in a fancy French restaurant. But this medieval weapon of mass destruction was certainly not edible. Trebuchets were used to break through castle walls from about 850-1350 C.E. Dead livestock or giant rocks were the usual ammunition, but sometimes prisoners of war or especially annoying people were added to the flying debris. Other launching devices similar to the trebuchet include the catapult and the ballista.
The catapult rolled into battle before the trebuchet was even invented, with reports that the Greeks and Romans used it around 350 C.E. The catapult had an arm with a large cup attached to the far end, where “missiles” were loaded and flung over the castle walls. However, the most successful catapults had slings attached to their throwing arms, which allowed the catapult to throw even farther.
The ballista was akin to a very large crossbow and was used in warfare for shooting arrows and stones. The projectiles would be placed in a groove, and a windlass was turned until the string the arrow or stone was attached to stretched back. The workers could then release the projectile at any moment and watch as if flew hundreds of feet into an enemy’s ranks.
The trebuchet was the last of these ancient heavy artillery weapons to be introduced onto the battlegrounds in Medieval Europe. A trebuchet must be made with a sling; otherwise the object being launched would probably fall out and only roll about two feet before stopping. The way the arm swings is the biggest difference between the trebuchet and its relatives, the ballista and the catapult. The wider end of the arm has a counterweight on in that when released causes the tapered end to fly into the air dragging the sling behind it. The sling releases the projectile into the air and the object flies away. Trebuchets are also most powerful of the three launching machines.