Because I am admittedly getting a bit horrified by the incipient little gore-fest our research has spawned,  I need a break from the ugliness for awhile.  Poor, sensitive,  girly-man,  that I am.

So let me tell you a story about my Dad:

Dad came up from the ranks.  He served an apprenticeship as a machinist at Westlands in WWII, and trained as a  member of the Home Guard.   After the war his talents as a designer quickly surfaced.  By the mid-sixties, England had demonstrated that it did not value its areoplane engineers as much as America did.  There was a noticeable gurgling sound around 1965 as the Great Brain Drain took hold.  The British Invasion and all that.

Forward to:  Some time in the Eighties, an engineering conference room inside the Boeing Company.  John Watts is in attendance.  This was the very first meeting to explore the engineering options for a new design of main landing gear for the Boeing 777.  After Dad made a presentation for a conceptual design , the leader of this discussion took pains to direct the conversation to a “well what did we do last time” kind of approach.   The politicians running the meeting apparently did not approve of Dad’s radical new design, and he ended up getting dissed for his contribution.

In the hallway after the meeting,  Dad had to collar someone with the gumption to understand that his approach was the best viable way to save something on the order of four tons in weight on the finished  gear.  This is a huge amount of weight to save, and yet apparently it took a fair amount of effort to make his point. Kuddos Dad.  People started growing ears as they wrapped their heads around the savings, and ultimately Dad found himself the lead design engineer for the main gear on the 777.  If you have flown in that plane, it is partly my Dad’s brainy bits you have to thank for a successful landing.

But, I digress……

The point is, there’s always a class of people, most people in fact, that obsess about the last approach that was taken.  I figure it is just Human Nature.  Dad did not suffer that impediment and his successful career was based largely on his ability to dream up entirely new stuff.  Those of us that don’t have this kind of talent, myself included,  really need to bow our heads in appreciation and understanding for those that do.  It is only logical.

What does any of this have to do with the Orsova artifacts we are investigating?  Simple,  it is not possible to look at the Orsova machine and not acknowledge that the design and construction of this type of machine was dreamed up by some truly original thinkers.   The modular iron field frames that could be detached from the machine just by knocking out a few wedges,  the wide open field of view beneath the steel arch,  the lack of wooden parts that in old style machines used to take up bulk while also being liable to crack; there are a host of things that suggest the designers of these iron frame ballistas were not afraid to try something new.

If we want to understand what an Orsova style machine actually looked like, it behooves us to drop the “how did they do it last time” approach and start thinking creatively,  just as those ancient engineers  clearly did.

The chances are that the designers of the Orsova machine were smarter and more in tune with the thing they were making than many of the folks that have come along afterwards trying to explain how their devices worked.  By fixating on arguments like “the Orsova machine had to be an outswinger”, the proponents of those arguments are engaging in the sin of being unimaginative in a situation that  requires they appreciate the brilliance of the original designers.  The safest set of assumptions about the Romans is that they were perfectly capable of fitting their field frames and kamerions together in the most efficient and powerful manner possible.

Until someone can demonstrate that accurate replicas of the Orsova artifacts can be assembled in a configuration that can best Firefly in a shooting competition, I would humbly suggest that this silly debate about the existence of inswingers be tabled in the face of overwhelming firepower.  Of course inswingers existed!  How could they not and still contain the unique geometry that supports a machine like Firefly?

Any lesser interpretation of the Orsova artifacts is just dissing the Romans.

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2 Responses to “Dissing the Romans.”


  1. Randi Richert says:

    Nick,
    That’s a very interesting sidenote about your Dad’s innovations on the 777. I’ll have to bring it the attention of some of my buddies who are as into aircraft as I am into catapults.

    Like you I have become convinced that the inswinger layout is the only logical answer. Those experts who continue to insist that iron-framers were outswingers are in denial. It is painful to watch the lengths that they will go, artifacts they will alter, and the bronze gew-gaws they will cobble up to support their out-dated concepts. I think it was the southern comedian Jerry Clower who called that phenomenon “climbing a tree to tell you a lie”. I’d love to see your engine shoot head to head with the Legio Six’s “Taurus Magnus”, an outswinger of a similar size.

    When it come to “dissing” the Romans for their lack of creativity, I do admit there may be some justification. They seem to have been far better at perfecting the inventions of others than at original thinking. Hero of Alexandria, usually credited with inventing the iron-framers was just another in the line of Greek engineers who thought up most of the major technolgical advances. In my experience, historians often credit Roman engineers too readily for advances more likely by other material cultures. Perhaps the best example is the vallus, or “Roman Harvester”, which was built and used by the Gauls and apparently never adopted in the rest of the Empire. Still, today, if you look at most engineering or history texts it would seem to be a shining example of Roman technolgical superiority.


  2. Nick Watts says:

    I take your point about the Roman penchant for adopting designs from other cultures. So, to restate: “whomever” was responsible for the Orsova machine is done a deep disservice if we do not at least credit them with being fully aware of all the potential inherent in the geometry of what they had created.

    I too would love to shoot head to head with “Taurus Magnus”. I wonder if that could be arranged?

    Also: Your not-so-trusty helmet is shopping around for a suitable cactus to shack up with. I’ll keep you posted.

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