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The Solar Death Ray of Archimedes

An Ivy League Professor reactivates an antique silver bullet and not only his students are enthusiastic about that.



The weapon of Archimedes: More than 100 mirrors let this red oak mockup boat burn
Picture by M.I.T 2009

The legend of Archimedes' sun weapon, which was employed by the Greek according historians in 212 before Christ during their defense against the roman armada in the attack in Syracuse, makes its mysterious ways through all kinds of literature and is also leaving traces on medieval pictures, like the story of the sunken city Atlantis, which one still hopes to find someday.

Archimedes, the big mathematician and "Daniel Düsentrieb" of the Greek Antique, should beside devising the precise calculation of the Pi element and the spiral screw for the transport of water also be the inventor of a kind of laser cannon. Atop an alignment of mirrors he accumulated the sunlight in its combustion point and set attacking roman ships like autumn foliage under a lens alight.

Until today physicists and historians are tempted to discuss and ponder questioning: Is that possible?

Only because he wanted to communicate some fun in his work and studies with his technique students, Prof. Dr. David Wallace started to examine the "Death Ray of Archimedes" on one of the Ivy League's universities M.I.T.(Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The result of his tests on the honorable "Kilian Court" in Boston turned out to be so significant, that there were appearances on TV and a worldwide Archimedes mass appeal is now discussing the subject on the internet.

Dozens of students had fun with the ‐Death Ray– in front of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Picture by M.I.T. 2009

80 Students – instead of the Greek soldiers, which Archimedes probably had – were employed by Prof. Wallace (with a megaphone and und an affixed Archimedes full beard) to arrange more than a hundred mirrors in such a way, that they accumulate the sunlight at the bow of an oak ship model. And there: After 15 minutes smoldering and smoking flames were virtually blazing out of the wood.

Prof. Wallace in the interview: "Afterwards a TV crew came for whom on the water we should set a real ship on fire. Unfortunately it didn't work out so well, because the ship had pretty wet wood. But it was damaged severely on all accounts."

After this discussions started to elaborate truly: If the Greek really had this weapon, wouldn't that have had an effect in the antiquity like the atomic bomb nowadays? And if yes, why didn't anybody hear more about that then?

Is it possible that Archimedes could have had the technical possibilities which we use today? Did he have silver mirrors like we have or "only" bronze ones? Prof. Wallace: "My students did researches on this subject and found out, that the process also perfectly functions with polished bronze mirrors. Even though these don't reflect 81 percent of the visible light, but only 65 yet in exchange they work better in the infrared field."

Dr. David Wallace, Professor for Mechanical Engineering, inspired his students with the Death Ray of Archimedes
Picture by M.I.T 2009

After several improved experiments David Wallace is sure: "With enough mirrors this sun weapon is definitely employable technically. And Archimedes was one of the greatest masterminds of the history. If he had wanted to, that weapon would have been built and used. But maybe stone slingshots and fire catapults were simply more effective."


An idle discussion without practical benefit? Not at all: The German Engineer Dieter Seifert developed an eco-cooker upon this model of the antique laser cannon, which bundles the sunlight in such a way that above it one can fry in a pan. -At least theoretically an intelligent alternative to lumbering the woods for firewood in the third world, which applied over a large area, would reduce the carbon dioxide discharge.

But what is also important here, is what Archimedes may already have recognized regarding his sun crackerjack 2200 years ago: Something must be practical, robust, and simple, or else it never prevails...


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© A report by Tobias Micke (06-11-05) – Contact