One of the more satisfying aspects of reconstructing a torsion catapult is to witness the level of amazement most people have when they first see it fire. The slow wind up process. The series of loud clicking sounds as various locking mechanisms snap into place. Bundles of rope creaking under enormous strain as the load starts to build. The exertion of the operator using the winch. It all adds to the relative drama . In public demonstrations* I have noticed a baited pause in the collective breathing of the audience a second before the shot is released. When the trigger is finally pulled, the resulting smack of the limbs into the frame is louder than most people expect. A split second later it is followed by an equally loud smashing sound as the bolt rips through several sheets of plywood.

Click here for a grainy peak at the Gallwey in action,   visible-tech-1

These are the effects of a visible technology. A machine whose functioning and performance people can understand on an instinctive level. We live in a world ruled by invisible powers. How many of us really understand how our plasma and LCD t.v.’s operate? Computers and cell phones are generally a mystery. Fuel injected, oxygen sensing automobiles may get us around, but who wants to try and fix one. All these things exist in a world made opaque with the magic of invisible technology. I have had enthusiastic five year olds start explaining to me how they thought a ballista worked. Many times they got it exactly right. A catapult represents a source of power that is utterly uncomplicated. It doesn’t rely on chemical detonation or puffing up huge quantities of steam or the arcane movement of electrons running through copper wires. It comes from a time when the water wheel and the oxen were the forces that moved civilization forward. When twisted skeins and the craft of cordage were rendered into instruments of lethal propulsion. Before gunpowder, the world was ruled by people that knew how to harness the power of visible technology. They were gifted artisans and engineers, no less intelligent than ourselves, just without the knowledge of how to harness unseen physical forces we now take for granted.

Discovery and invention have made the modern world possible and the catapult has morphed into the nuclear tipped missile. By todays standards, a torsion engine is an archaic and whimsical piece of equipment. Hollywood notwithstanding, it is as far from a weapon of mass destruction as the horse and buggy are from a Ferrari. As impressive as a ballista is to see function, its actual performance compared to a modern firearm is a pathetic joke. My reconstruction of the Gallwey ballista weighs close to 800 lbs, takes a couple of minutes to wind up with a draw force measured in tons, and for all that, still only generates the same power as a single round out of six shot .44 magnum revolver you can hide under your coat. The limits of visible technology spelled the end of the ancient world. If the Romans could have developed gunpowder, or steam power or electricity,  perhaps their empire would have dominated the world for another thousand years.   As it was, they crumbled under the weight of their own ambition.

*  Public demonstrations are always performed at a fraction of full power for safety reasons.  It is one of the unique features of a ballista that it can be fired at anywhere along its draw length.  Unlike a crossbow that always has to be fired at full power, a ballista operator can choose the power setting on the machine.  One wonders if the ancients used this feature for playing war games.  A classical version of paintball perhaps.

One Response to “Visible technology”


  1. Timur I. Alhimenkov says:

    Great! Thank you!
    I always wanted to write in my site something like that. Can I take part of your post to my site?
    Of course, I will add backlink?

    Sincerely, Reader

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