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5 Weapons Well Ahead of Their Time

Ever since World War II, when the globe was in the throes of the Cold War, countries have placed vast importance on the development of the most advanced and innovative weapons technologies. From nuclear bombs and ever-varying ways to deploy them, to futuristic systems like Reagan’s Star Wars, the world has seen some pretty advanced weaponry displayed and even used, sometimes to incredibly destructive outcomes. 

But humankind’s search for the biggest and best weapon is nothing new. You could go back as far as prehistoric days and witness an arms race to wield the biggest club in the cave. A look back through history reveals some truly spectacular innovation and inventions. Historians are hard-pressed to find a time in the past when humans weren’t engaged in the age-old schoolyard quarrel, “my weapon system can beat up your weapon system!” 

Let’s take a trip through time and examine moments in history when humankind’s wish for destructive power surpassed the technology of their time. These are five weapons that were well ahead of their time. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Armored Car

World War I wasn’t called the War to End All Wars for no reason. This was when some of the deadliest and most destructive uses of technology were first used on a mass scale for the entire world to witness. The advent of the machine gun saw the gruesome end of the heroic charge towards enemy lines, chemical and biological weapons took warfare to a microscopic level, and artillery greeted soldiers with a destructive bang.

However, one of the most influential military innovations of The Great War was the tank. It was originally conceived to break the months-long stalemate caused by trench warfare and punch through enemy lines. The tank revolutionized how armies executed infantry maneuvers. 

The original idea for the tank, however, came many centuries before when, in 1485, Leonardo da Vinci toyed with the idea of an armored car. His design and drawings put forth the idea of a warfare vehicle that was impervious to a wide range of attacks, capable of moving in any direction, and able to use a variety of weapons. 

The genius of da Vinci further shines in a letter he wrote to the Duke of Milan about his concept. In this letter da Vinci predicted the ability of his tank to break through enemy lines, paving the way for infantry troops to follow unobstructed and remain free from harm. This idea is much like the Blitzkrieg strategy of the German army in World War II. 

However, like most of da Vinci’s brain children, his idea for a medieval tank could not be supported by the technology of his day. The steering system would have been too complex to work properly, and the wheels would have been too flimsy to support the vehicle. The weapons on the tank used black gunpowder which would have rendered the interior of the tank toxic and unbreathable after only a couple of rounds of firing. It took technology several hundred years to catch up to da Vinci’s idea and make the tank a workable weapon. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Thirty-Three Barreled Organ

As mentioned before, the introduction of machine guns in World War I provided a vulgar wake up call to those soldiers still dreaming of a heroic charge towards enemy lines. Gruesome scenes of piles of bodies that had been mowed down were an all-too-common site on the trench-filled battlefields. 

The idea for the machine gun came well before its widespread use in the Great War. Just like the tank, the idea for this weapon came many centuries before from none other than Leonardo da Vinci. 

Da Vinci noticed that the cannons and artillery of his time were quite ineffective. They took too long to reload and often misfired. To solve this problem, da Vinci devised a contraption comprising three sets of cannons, divided into groups of eleven and fastened to a rotating platform in the middle. 

In theory, the three sets of guns would allow one set to be firing while the set previously fired were cooling down and the next set to fire were being loaded by soldiers. This would allow a continuous or near-continuous rate of fire. The assembly of several artillery pipes next to each other gave the impression of a musical organ, akin to the ones you would see in churches during da Vinci’s time, which earned this potentially destructive invention its benign name. 

As with the tank he designed, da Vinci’s Thirty-Three Barreled Organ was never made or used in battle. It remained an idea in his head and drawings on paper until the machine gun as we know it today was used. 

Modeled in 3D. Source: assassin’s creed 33 barreled, organ, https://www.artstation.com/artwork/4byRvq by Nick Vigna

Greek Fire

Source: https://en.topwar.ru/

The Vietnam War was one of the first military conflicts to see the use of modern media. News reports, pictures, and videos of the horrors of war made their way back to the home front and turned many Americans against their government’s actions. 

Perhaps some of the most gruesome examples of war are the stories and pictures detailing the use of napalm. Also called Agent Orange, this weapon was first used in the Pacific Theater during World War II and in the Korean War. However, the U.S. military dropped dozens of times more napalm on Vietnam than in the previous two wars and burned thousands of acres of Vietnamese jungles and countless villages and inhabitants. The Pulitzer-prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim Phúc popularized the anti-war sentiment in the U.S. 

Millenia before napalm’s use in any twentieth century war, however, the military of the Byzantine Empire put to use what we know today as Greek Fire. Though very similar to napalm, Greek Fire’s exact formula is still unknown. 

Byzantine infantry troops would use Greek fire in clay pots, which they would light on fire and launch at the enemy. That’s right, a napalm filled Molotov cocktail. If on sea, Byzantine sailors would shoot pressurized streams of it at enemy ships. 

The effectiveness of Greek Fire came from its imperviousness to water. It would instantly set ablaze whatever it came in contact with, be it troops or ships, and continue burning even underwater. Greek fire was such an effective weapon against enemy troops and potential invaders alike that Byzantine emperors closely guarded their stores of this agent and the formula used to make it. Scientists and historians have tried to guess and replicate the formula, but the only remnants of this weapon that have lasted until today are the ancient stories of its fiery destruction and death. 

Archimedes’ Death Ray

Archimedes destroyed enemy ships with fire. Source: unmuseum.org

The idea of a death ray has captivated audiences ever since the Star Wars movies popularized the idea with their planet-destroying Death Star. Even today, the idea of a death ray seems futuristic and far-fetched. However, some historians claim that a death ray could have been used as long ago as ancient Roman times. 

Whereas the Death Star was the superweapon of the evil empire in Star Wars, the death ray in history was the tool of those fighting the evil empire. In this case, the empire was the Romans, and whether they were evil depends on what historian you ask. Another thing up for debate among historians is how effective the death ray was, or if it even existed at all. 

As the story goes, the Roman empire laid siege to the city of Syracuse in 214 B.C.E. Unfortunately for the Romans, Syracuse was home to Archimedes, one of the greatest minds of his time, if not all of history. Archimedes allegedly thought up the idea of using mirrors to harness the natural power of the sun and direct it towards the invading Romans. His death ray used multiple mirrors along a shoreline or the city wall which trained their reflection of the sun on the incoming Roman ships. The concentrated heat of the sun then set the wooden ships on fire. 

It remains a debate still today whether this method would work in reality or if it was ever used before. Archimedes’ death ray was first mentioned by the historian Galens over 350 years after the Roman invasion of Syracuse. As for the effectiveness of Archimedes’ weapon, many teams, ranging from the MythBusters to scientists at MIT, have put it to the test. 

The MythBusters had little success showing the death ray as an effective weapon. However, the team at MIT managed to set a replica of a roman ship on fire; the only caveat being the replica ship was stationary, not advancing towards a city or bobbing upon rough seas. However, the Greek scientist Dr. Ioannis Sakkas used seventy mirrors operated by just as many people to set a moving rowboat on fire. 

Perhaps these teams did not have as great of minds as Archimedes and could not put this great idea to effective use, or perhaps the historian Galens lent his telling of history a little artistic flair. Either way, Archimedes’ death ray is a captivating tale and a weapon well ahead of its ancient setting. 

Armored Battleships

Source: https://operus.artstation.com/projects/EQl9A

Any U.S. history buff, especially enthusiasts of the Civil War, will tell you that one of the greatest military innovations to come from that conflict is the use of armored ships. The first clash of two ironclad ships, a battle in 1862 between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor, put the use of unarmored ships to rest for good. 

As you probably guessed, though, the idea of an armored ship was conceived and used many centuries before, this time in East Asia in 1500s. When Japanese forces invaded Korea in 1592, they attributed their successful campaigns to the muskets they bought from the Portuguese and their aggressive tactics of boarding enemy ships pirate style. 

The Korean forces quickly responded to these threats, though, with the invention of the Geobukseon, or Turtle Boat. Aptly named, this warship sported iron siding to shield from musket fire and an overhead covering layered with spikes to deter any Japanese soldier wanting to board uninvited. 

Unlike their Civil War counterparts, the Turtle Boats were not steam-powered, using instead the workforce of over eighty well-protected rowers. These ships did, however, boast twenty-three cannons effective for up to 500 meters, or 1600 feet, and an intimidating dragon head on the bow that spewed sulfur smoke to shield the warship’s movement from enemy eyes. 







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