Archimedes was the Einstein of his age. His theories and inventions revolutionized the ancient world and to this day remain influential. He discovered the Law of Buoyancy, calculated pi to unprecedented precision, and developed the Archimedes screw. A lifetime resident of the city of Syracuse, in what is today Sicily, he led the defense of the city against the Roman army during a three year siege. He developed at least one devastating weapon which was used against the Romans, called Archimedes claw, which helped hold the indomitable Roman army at bay.
But legends claim that Archimedes built a weapon so devastating it even gave the Romans pause. This weapon is popularly known today as Archimedes’ Death Ray. It is certainly a romantic notion: a genius develops a super weapon to defend his home against the international equivalent of the neighborhood bully. The idea has certainly gained traction today, with the Mythbusters famously testing the idea three times, once at the request of President Obama. Even MIT got in on the recreation game in 2005.
But whether such a weapon could be built isn’t the question. The real question is whether Archimedes actually built one. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Lets look at the legend itself first.
Death by sunlight
Archimedes’ Death Ray allegedly worked by focusing the rays of the sun using mirrors, much like the Nazi’s take on the death ray concept over 2000 years later. The weapon would have consisted of either several highly polished mirrors held by troops along the city walls, focusing the sun’s rays on oncoming Roman ships. By focusing these rays, they were able to create a point of intense heat that would set fire to Roman ships. An alternative version of the weapon was a single, large parabolic mirror. This giant mirror would act more like the modern concept of a laser gun, incinerating whatever it was aimed at.
Several modern experiments have shown that the concept could potentially work. The MIT experiment managed to set a fire on a recreation Roman ship using 127 mirrors that were 1 foot square. These, arranged in a parabola (a shallow bowl shape, basically) were able to create a flame after 10 minutes of focusing sunlight. A 1973 experiment by a Greek engineer deployed a similar set up, but used it against a row boat in the ocean. He was also able to achieve ignition.
So, it’s possible to recreate the legendary weapon under modern experimental conditions. That, however, doesn’t mean that Archimedes actually built it. Something being possible and something being real are two entirely separate things. As we will see, there’s strong reason to believe that the legend is nothing more than just that.
A problematic weapon
While it is possible for an array of mirror to set fire to a wooden ship, there would have been severe problems deploying such a weapon. The 1973 experiment managed to ignite a rowboat at 160 feet. However, while it would have indeed been possible for Archimedes forces to do the same, they would have been well within bow or sling range. Not to mention, many ships of the day employed torsion powered artillery pieces that could fire well beyond the range of a bow. So, any troops standing in place long enough to ignite an enemy ship (10 minutes according to the MIT study) would have found themselves shot to pieces.
Another problem with the death ray of legend is that it relied on the sun to operate. One stray cloud and a deadly weapon would become nothing more than a bunch of guys holding mirrors. Besides that, the Romans could have attacked at night, or any other time of the day when the light wasn’t just right.
Lack of documentation
So, the Archimedes death ray would not have been a very practical weapon. But the real nail in the coffin of the legendary super-weapon is that nobody from the time period says anything about it.. If a weapon was powerful enough to devastate the Roman army in one fell swoop, somebody would have wrote about it. But three prominent ancient historians who wrote about the siege– Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch — never mentioned anything close to a death ray. Polybius was born twelve years after the Siege of Syracuse. He would have been able to interview combatants from both sides of the siege to put together his account. If there was a death ray, nobody said anything about it.
Another historical proof that the death ray didn’t exist is the fact that no one imitated it. The Romans especially were great adaptors of foreign ways, if it fitted their purposes. For example, the Romans originally fought in dense hoplite phalanxes, like the Greeks, until they confronted some of the hill tribes of Italy, who fought in more flexible formations and utilized short swords and javelins. Seeing how effective these new ways of fighting were, the Romans adopted them, laying the foundation for an army that would conquer the world.
Put short, if a weapon as devastatingly effective as the Archimedes Death Ray existed, the Romans would have adapted it and we would have seen accounts in the histories of armies and fleets being burnt to ash by Roman mirror guns. That, or other cultures who fought the Romans would have used the dread weapons in their resistance, just as Archimedes did.
But nothing quit that dramatic appears in the history books. The people of Syracuse did employ fire against the Roman fleet, a fact that over the centuries morphed into reports of a fantastic weapon. But that fire probably took the form of a well known ancient wonder weapon; Greek Fire, a kind of early napalm. No death ray required
“Burning Mirrors: Refuting the Legend.” math.nyu.edu. New York University. March 1, 2014 <http://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/Mirrors/legend/legend.html>
Chang, Kenneth. “Archimedes: Separating Myth From Science.” nytimes.com. June 24, 2013. The New York Times. March 01, 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/25/science/archimedes-separating-myth-from-science.html?_r=1&>
Clark, Josh. “What was Archimedes’ Death Ray?” HowStuffWorks.com. How Stuff Works. March 01, 2014. <http://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/archimedes-death-ray2.htm>