An Ancient Super Weapon: The Iron Hand of Archimedes

745px-Parigi_griffeThe words super weapon bring to mind gigantic, terrifying weapons with unparalleled destructive power. That, or super villain-esque contraptions that sound like something from the pages of a comic book.

But super weapons don’t need to be either gigantic or sound like bad science fiction to be effective. Any weapon could be a super weapon if your enemies possess it and you don’t. In fact, one super weapon from the ancient world was relatively simple in its construction, but very deadly in application.

This weapon was called the Iron Hand, but it is better known today as Archimedes Claw. While some tales of Archimedes’ weapon building prowess are greatly exaggerated, the ancient genius did make his share of contributions to the killing arts. He was put in charge of the defense of ancient Syracuse, his home city, and set to work applying his engineering knowledge to making the city walls as impenetrable as possible. These improvements were put to good use when the Romans came calling with both a large fleet and a land army in 214 BC. The Iron Hand of Archimedes helped Syracuse stand against one of the strongest powers in the region for three long years.

 

A deceptively simple contraption

So what sort of weapon could terrify the Romans, never known for their cowardice, so much that they would opt to starve out an enemy rather than simply storm the city walls? The answer is surprisingly simple — a crane.

At least, the Iron Hand was a lot like a crane. The weapon consisted of a long wooden arm, a rope with a grappling hook on the end, a lead counterweight on the short end, and a wooden sub structure that could act as a pivot point. Several of these contraptions were placed on the seaward walls of Syracuse. When not in use, they were likely concealed by positioning them parallel to the walls, but when Roman ships approached the operators would swing the arm around and dangle the grappling hook over the opposing ship. They would then dip the grapple down, and snag the ship either on its front or side. When they released the lead counterweight, the grapple hook shot upwards with enough force to either capsize the ship. A well-placed grapple could pluck a ship clean out of the water. Then the operators could shake the ship or smash it against the rocks at the base of the wall.

Mind you, we aren’t talking about rowboats here. The Romans employed sixty quinquiremes during the siege of Syracuse. These were the largest battle ships of their day, capable of holding 420 men and even of being platforms for catapults and other artillery. Fully loaded, a quinquireme could weight as much as 100 tons. The Iron Hand could take such a ship and lift it clear out of the water. Was it any wonder that the Romans were terrified of the thing?

What is even more amazing about the Iron Hand is that it utilized relatively simple physics: the Law of Levers and the Law of Buoyancy, both of which were discovered by Archimedes. By utilizing the principle of the lever, Archimedes was able to design a machine that could lift 100 plus tons, no easy feat even today. And the principle of buoyancy revealed an Achilles Heel in the Roman’s deadliest ship; while they were stable on the move, they were unstable when still. Using a grapple hook to apply a little extra force to one side could flip the whole ship over.

 

In the end, it was not enough

As devastating as the Iron Hand was, it could not fend off the Romans forever. After three long years of war, the Syracusan defenses collapsed and the Romans stormed the city. Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier, despite orders that the genius of Syracuse be taken alive.

 

Sources:

“Archimedes’ Claw.” physics.weber.edu. Weber State University. March 3, 2014. <http://physics.weber.edu/carroll/archimedes/claw.htm>

Rones, Chris. Harris, Harry G. “A Formidable War Machine: Construction and Operation of Archimedes’ Iron Hand.” Symposium on Extraordinary Machines and Structures in Antiquity. August 19-24 2001. <http://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/Claw/harris/rorres_harris.pdf>