The Cult of Archimedes’ Death Ray

You might know the legend:

Now, hold real still...

Archimedes the Smart was in Syracuse for a long siege by the Romans.  He used his smarts, and parabolas, to point polished shields and reflected sunlight onto the Roman ships, thereby setting them on fire. The story has taken on a life of its own, until it’s like an ancient action movie.  Archimedes, played by Sean Connery, dressed to the hilt in Greek leather, death ray in hand grenade-launcher-like, points the ray at a succession of Roman ships.  “Make my day!” Blam! “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Ker-PLOW! “Guaranteed to jack you up!”


(Okay, that last one might not have been the strongest line from an action film.)

Problem: It probably never happened.  Sorry.

Mythbusters has tackled the myth three times now, each time concluding, “Yeah, myth almost certainly busted.”  Over the years, a number of smart people have tried to duplicate the feat, and some have declared success, though as far as I can tell, only by cheating the parameters.

In my take, these factors must be taken into account before you can say “Eureka!”:

Time of day/strength of sun: Syracuse harbor faces east–the sun in question would have been morning sun.

Ocean wind: If you’re not trying to focus your giant reflective surface in at least a mild wind, you haven’t really done this by a harbor, have you?

Water: A few of the groups that claim victory have set their ships on fire–in parking lots.  Or in a field.  Sorry, landlubbers–not the same as ships bobbing about on the ocean.

Distance: Would someone go measure the fricking Syracuse harbor, already, and put an end to this “Well, yes, 60 feet IS short, it was probably longer than that, but hey–that’s all the space we had, all right?  Give us a break!”

Materials: Bronze or copper shields.  If you’re going to upgrade to modern-day glass-blowing techniques, just admit you’re fudging.  And make the target boat out of the same type of wood common in Roman ships at the time.

And account for:

  • Why didn’t the Greeks just use flaming arrows?
  • Why did it take centuries for historians to mention the blazing success in their accounts of the battle?
  • What were the Roman soldiers doing on the boats?  Couldn’t they jump up and down and break the focus?  Throw themselves in front of the ray and take the bullet?  These were Roman soldiers.  Some of the butchest guys in history.  They just stood there, all several hundred of them per boat, and watched while the four or five Greeks per mirror on the shore steadied the glass against the wind and held tight for minutes until all the conditions were perfect and the ships caught fire?  Really?

Check out this guy for a depressingly thorough refutation, complete with math and stuff: Dennis L. Simms rains on your Archimedes’ Death Ray

I get it.  It’s superfun to play with the details of this myth, to try to find a way it could be possible.  The Mythbusters’ episodes (three to date) have been a hoot, including the one with President Obama. I can see why people keep revisiting the idea.  But I’ve moved on from trying to make it true (it probably wasn’t) to trying to grasp why this is so freaking important to people.  Why can’t they just let it go?

The answer is probably as simple as myth itself; it makes a much better story if it’s true.  Or am I missing something else about the durability of this particular myth?

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2 Responses to The Cult of Archimedes’ Death Ray

  1. Michelle says:

    Dudue, watch that show “Acient Aliens.” It might seem more plausible. Actually, a LOT of things will seem more plausible.


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