Modern Marvels: Siege Machines: Catapults to Laser Cannons – Full Episode (S9, E9) | History

>> NARRATOR: From time immemorial, humans have been developing weapons that can blast through, break down and breach the world’s strongest fortifications From the ancient battering ram to medieval catapults and crossbows from cannons and tanks to computer-guided cruise missiles Now, “Siege Machines” on Modern Marvels Captioning sponsored by A&E TELEVISION NETWORKS >> NARRATOR: King Edward had one Napoleon had one And so does Hew Kennedy >> HEW KENNEDY: Early on in my youth, I read about these large siege machines and I was rather more than fascinated by the idea of building one sometime particularly when I heard that the Emperor Napoleon III tried to build one in the 1850s and had not really succeeded very well >> NARRATOR: Hew Kennedy, a wealthy English landowner and military historian, owns the only full-sized trebuchet, a giant seesaw-like device, in existence today >> KENNEDY: A trebuchet is an engine of war It’s used for throwing large weights >> NARRATOR: In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, siege machines similar to this four- story, 30-ton instrument of destruction were used to demolish fortress walls at will >> PAUL DENNEY: The biggest ones were capable of throwing a rock, maybe weighing 600 pounds And with a rock of that size, you can do quite a bit of damage >> RON TOMS: The trebuchet was fearsome because it was repeatable and it had awesome power– the most powerful machine on the planet at the time >> DR. JOHN FRANCE: And we do have instructions, drafted in the late 13th century, for the construction of a trebuchet And they begin with the words “He who would build a trebuchet must take care.” >> NARRATOR: Guided by rare 19th century drawings, Kennedy designed and built his own trebuchet >> KENNEDY: The drawings will tell you the principle on which they worked, but that’s all >> TOMS: We do know that they would heave boulders a certain distance and these boulders had certain impact characteristics when they hit Working backwards from that and also knowing what kind of woodworking skills they had, what kind of materials they had at hand, and applying our understanding of engineering today, we’re able to reconstruct what we think those machines were like >> NARRATOR: Unlike his medieval mentors who employed the massive machine to knock down castle walls during a siege, Kennedy must settle for the simple pleasure of flinging things– big things– through the air– in this case, a 450-pound piano >> DR. KELLY DeVRIES: The excitement of this type of technology, as with many types of military technology: so long as you’re not being hit, it’s pretty doggone exciting to watch >> DENNEY: It’s so graceful It starts almost imperceptibly It’s very slow at first And then really gracefully, it moves round in this huge arc and nothing’s put in there but human effort And it’s just quite an amazing thing to see People even now just burst into spontaneous applause when the trebuchet goes >> NARRATOR: The trebuchet is one of the most formidable and impressive siege machines, but what exactly are siege machines? >> FRANCE: A siege machine is anything, actually, that helps an army sitting around a castle or a city to take it It’s almost always made of wood because in the Middle Ages, wood was the chief material used for almost any structure But siege machines come in all such shapes and sizes >> DeVRIES: A generic term for a siege machine is something that will destroy that fortification, that will cause a breach in that fortification so that armies may intrude on the defenders and defeat it and conquer it >> NARRATOR: Siege machines have evolved from man’s first long- range projectile-throwing device– the slingshot– to the computer-driven cruise missiles of today >> MAN: Oh, yeah >> NARRATOR: But it is the primitive mechanics of the machines used in the Middle Ages, however, that provide us with the most surprising look at their development

>> JULIE DOUGLASS: A lot of people have a vision of the past that people did not have very high levels of skill in engineering and technology And what machines like these prove is that they did have very great engineering skills >> FRANCE: People who do not understand the laws of nature in the way that we understand them, nonetheless, by trial and error, are working out the principle of the lever That’s the central principle >> TOMS: Engineers of old would apprentice with other engineers and learn their skills They would spend a lifetime developing an intuitive understanding of materials and of strength, of force and leverage >> NARRATOR: Ron Toms knows all about force and leverage because he too spends much of his life building siege machines >> TOMS: I fell in love with the engineering behind siege engines and trebuchets In medieval times these were military weapons These were secret These were the state of the art for military weaponry And, as such, the plans for these things– the detailed descriptions of how they work– are not generally available >> NARRATOR: Toms has developed an intuitive understanding of medieval machines and the power they wield by building trebuchets and catapults the old-fashioned way– trial and error >> TOMS: Three, two, one >> NARRATOR: Even these scaled- down machines have a force to be reckoned with >> TOMS: Now, to get a ten- or 12-pound object going 70 or 80 miles an hour in about a third of a second– which is how long it takes for the trebuchet to actually fire– that’s a lot of acceleration That’s a lot of power And that’s one of the things that made the trebuchet so successful and so fascinating, is just how much power it’s capable >> NARRATOR: Much less sophisticated than the medieval trebuchet, but successful in its own way, was the ancient battering ram The battering ram consisted of a whole tree trunk reinforced with a metal head, which was thrust repeatedly against a wall or gate >> DeVRIES: Six burly individuals with a big huge tree trunk between them– they may be very effective as long as there are no defenders who are firing down upon them, so, again, you have to protect them And pretty soon what you begin to see are wheeled battering rams with covers over the top of them >> NARRATOR: Suspended from an overhead beam, the battering ram was rolled up to its target for prolonged attack Rams on rollers were an essential component of Roman siege arsenals as early as the fourth century BC While all siege machines rely on the use of force, not all of them are quite so simple Marvels. ancient and medieval While Hollywood has a way of marketing ancient and medieval mayhem, the images belie the deadly nature of siege machines Attack and defense of fortifications are two of the most essential components of warfare Each side employs machines capable of breaching barriers, ultimately forcing the other side to surrender Siege warfare– the art of conquering a town or castle– posed special problems for military engineers during the Middle Ages >> FRANCE: The point of a siege is that a castle controls the countryside round it If you want to take over the country, take over a land, you’ve got to take the castle >> NARRATOR: But taking a castle by medieval means wasn’t easy >> FRANCE: The problem with a castle is that you can’t get into it without either battering a hole in the wall, knocking the gate down or climbing over And your big problem is that the people on the walls won’t let you do that >> DeVRIES: Well in order then to defeat these fortifications that have been around for 4,000 years, man devised methods by which to bring the fortifications down >> NARRATOR: The ingenuity of these siege machines developed in direct relationship to the complexity of the fortifications they faced Perhaps the most primitive siege machine was the ladder >> DeVRIES: All the way through the earliest period of the history of warfare, the ladder remains the strongest best siege machine that is around It’s also cheapest to make For example, Joan of Arc testifies that she put her ladder onto the fortification at Orleon first and she went up that ladder first But that’s the problem: who goes up the ladder first is generally going to be met with the strongest defense against that ladder >> FRANCE: If you can dominate the castle with firepower, make the defenders keep their heads down, then a lot of ladders go up in a fairly limited stretch

of wall Somebody’s going to get over That’s how that works >> NARRATOR: While bows and arrows were capable of delivering deadly blows, soldiers on ladders were completely vulnerable That’s when armies began to develop specialized ladders with wheels on them Covered in protective hides, these machines were called siege towers >> DeVRIES: You could have a large number of troops already in the siege tower as you rolled it up because it was protected all the way down to the ground, you had constant number of troops then that were ready to go up the ladder In a way, it’s the Trojan Horse on the outside of the fortification You’re delivering a large number of individuals into the town for a heated blow until you can open it up and allow more individuals in >> NARRATOR: The largest siege tower of ancient times is the Helepolis built in Athens in 304 BC The tower was reinforced with iron plates on three sides as a protection from fire Almost nine stories high, weighing approximately 150 tons, the tower was mounted on giant casters and propelled, presumably in relays, by 3,400 men Artillery ports on all levels contained battering rams, archers and a variety of missile-throwing devices known as catapults >> DeVRIES: By the time we move to catapults in history, we’ve taken the siege in a different direction Now no longer is it simply man against the fortification Now it is man’s tool against the fortification >> NARRATOR: Catapult is a generic term for all ancient and medieval missile-throwing siege machines The first catapult appeared in ancient Greece in the fourth century BC All of these machines operate on the basic principal of using various mechanical devices to store and release greater amounts of energy >> FRANCE: To attack a castle, you needed missiles above all And the basic problem you’ve got is that everything that you can do, they can do back at you– only better, because they’ve got height and therefore range So how do you respond to that? You build big machines Machines as time goes by become more and more elaborate They can throw heavier and heavier stones >> DENNEY: There’s three types of siege engine There’s the tension machine in which the bow is bent back to provide the force to throw a bolt >> NARRATOR: An early tension machine introduced in Syracuse was the gastraphetes or “belly bow.” It added, on average, 81 yards to the flight of the projectile over that of a traditional bow and arrow >> DENNEY: Then we have the torsion machine where the energy is stored in a skein of rope which is then twisted very, very tightly and as the arm comes back, it gets tighter >> NARRATOR: One early type of torsion machine was the bolt shooter or oxybeles, which appeared around 375 BC, and fired bolts, including 27-inch arrows with iron tips The force of the bolt could pierce a man’s shield and armor at ranges in excess of a quarter mile Another torsion machine was the stone thrower or lithobolos, which could fire rocks from ten to 180 pounds Such machines were generally used at point-blank range and were capable of stripping battlements from fortified walls >> DENNEY: And then the third type of engine is the counterpoise engine, which, if you imagine, it’s a bit like a seesaw with the center set off to one side >> NARRATOR: These ancient siege machines were not only hard to move around in battle but also wildly inaccurate >> DeVRIES: And this is where we get the development of the crossbow The notion that you can actually use a wood or bone or composite bow arms and then eventually metal, steel primarily and that if you can draw that string back far enough, the energy that can be delivered to this can penetrate almost anything >> NARRATOR: Unlike the stiff wood bows used in ancient times, the medieval crossbow was a smaller, more flexible and accurate tension machine, so accurate that it was a both loathed and popular as a siege engine >> DeVRIES: There’s only one weapon system was ever banned by the Pope, and that’s the crossbow The crossbow was banned by the Pope for one simple reason They figured it was unfair, okay? It was too strong It could be fired by individuals who are less skilled than the archer It could be fired by almost anybody And it becomes a very interesting development of technology over skill

>> NARRATOR: Introduced into England by the Norman invaders in 1066, the crossbow was attached to a stock and could be kept loaded without effort from the soldier The stock allowed the bending and release of the bow to be mechanically assisted, increasing its ballistic force With the addition of sophisticated cocking mechanisms in the 13th and 14th centuries, which allowed the soldier to draw back the bow with ease, the crossbow fired a missile a minute with a maximum range of 380 yards, 100 yards further than the ancient bow Built in the late 13th century, Caerphilly Castle is one of the great strongholds of medieval Europe Located in Wales, Caerphilly is an example of how medieval fortifications adapted to the increasingly powerful siege machines that attacked them >> FRANCE: Walls become better; towers are crucial Towers begin square because it’s easiest to build a big building square But the trouble with squares is that the corners hide people approaching, so you build round towers where you have absolutely perfect vision all around and the arrow slits, of course, also have accordingly better vision >> NARRATOR: The most intriguing feature of Caerphilly Castle, however, is its multiple lines of defense: walls within walls >> FRANCE: That’s the principle of the concentric castle That is, one line of defense is supported by another line of defense, so that if the enemy break into the first line of defense, if they can get in, then they face a second line of defense, so that every obstacle, there’s another obstacle You never, as it were, get to the end until you really get to the middle of the castle >> NARRATOR: For an attacking army in the Middle Ages to be successful, they had to build the biggest and best siege machines money could buy Four scaled-down machines, all fully operational, are on display at Caerphilly: a ballista mangonel trebuchet and traction trebuchet, or Perrier >> DOUGLASS: These machines are babies in comparison to what could have been achieved The size and the scale of the machines here at Caerphilly Castle is based on what we can use safely within the grounds of the castle >> NARRATOR: The ballista is, in effect, a giant crossbow Originally developed by the ancient Greeks during the siege of Syracuse around 399 BC, this machine was used primarily as an antipersonnel weapon >> DENNEY: It uses two vertically mounted skeins of rope you can see here, and unlike a normal crossbow, you’ll see that the arms are solid There’s no bend in those at all As the string is pulled back, you can see those skeins don’t intertwist The farther you pull it back, the more tension you build in those skeins so that eventually, when you get it all the way back to the trigger here and hooked over, it’s that that gives the engine its propulsive force The whole thing is mounted on a kind of crude universal joint at this end which allows you to move it up and from side to side >> NARRATOR: This half-ton ballista fires deadly darts or bolts made of beaten brass or bronze >> DENNEY: The objective here is that this part punches through the armor and it’s essentially wider here than the rest of the shaft so that that allows, once the head’s gone through the armor, for the rest of the shaft to carry on through the hole that the head’s made And this is an armor-piercing antipersonnel weapon very effective against an armored knight, especially at close range >> DOUGLASS: Behind us we have a mangonel, otherwise known as an onager, which is Latin for “wild ass” because it has a kick like a mule when it goes off It’s probably of late classical origin It’s a single-armed torsion engine It would have been used to attack either lines of infantry or defensive positions >> NARRATOR: A mangonel weighed between two and six tons and was disassembled for transport and reassembled for a siege It was not a rapid-fire machine but did have limited success in pitching incendiaries with a spoon-like arm >> TOMS: People tried to solve the problem of how to throw bigger things What they were really trying to

throw were flaming pots of tar and this thing called “Greek fire,” which is a mixture of chemicals that, when you throw water on it, it only makes the fire more intense >> DeVRIES: It was a flammable liquid that was then sent out against an opponent But again, it was not used very often because of the danger and also, I think, because of the lack of material Problem is it seemed to have been rather secret and we don’t have a lot of evidence for it >> NARRATOR: Depending on the weight and type of projectile, the range for the mangonel and the ballista at Caerphilly is about 150 yards The largest and most effective siege machine ever invented is the trebuchet, which, according to medieval experts, holds the distinction of being the most powerful form of mechanical artillery ever devised Just the sight of Edward I’s 14th-century trebuchet was enough to force defenders to surrender >> DENNEY: It’s worth remembering the fact that for 200 years in Europe this was the most powerful weapon in the world There was nothing more powerful than this >> NARRATOR: Trebuchets like those at Caerphilly Castle revolutionized siege warfare not only because of the range of their destructive power, but also because of their accuracy >> DENNEY: These machines are very accurate, provided you keep the missile perfectly round and exactly the same weight and you don’t touch anything, it will hit the same spot time and time again Now, that was necessary, actually, because in order to even hope to penetrate one of these massive walls, you needed to keep hitting the spot time and time again >> NARRATOR: The trebuchet draws its remarkable power not from twisted ropes but from gravity At the short end of this giant seesaw-like engine is a counterweight >> DENNEY: This one here’s got about two tons in the counterbalance box It’s sand and rock We know lead was used Now, lead’s much more dense, and for a cubic meter of lead, it weighs about 11 tons, so if we fill that with lead it would be a hell of a lot more heavier than it is >> NARRATOR: At Caerphilly, a crew of seven to nine is needed to pull down the 20-foot arm and cock the counterweight A 24-pound concrete missile is then placed in the 30-foot sling >> Heave! >> NARRATOR: Because the counterweight is closer to the fulcrum, as it drops, the longer end of the arm swings around, propelling the concrete missile at tremendous speeds >> DENNEY: I have been party to an experiment where a laser gun was used to track a missile, and we clocked it at 125 miles an hour And that was a 350-pound sandstone ball >> NARRATOR: A smaller, more mobile version of the trebuchet originated in Asia in the tenth century >> DOUGLASS: It’s a simple machine, much like our Perrier, where the pulling power of a team of people at one end of an arm pulls down a weight at the other end and shoots it off That’s a Perrier or traction trebuchet >> DENNEY: They were very easy to transport They were quick to make, and you could use a large crew of men to operate them So it’s quite typical that you would have five or six of these in a row, maybe, attacking any given section of wall >> NARRATOR: The early traction trebuchets fired projectiles weighing up to 130 pounds at a distance between 90 and 145 yards The real advantage, however, is that they could fire five or six times a minute By the 13th century the trebuchet displaced all other siege machines and continued to hold its own for the next 200 years despite the growing popularity of gunpowder Harnessing the explosive force necessary to propel a projectile would be the vital step in the escalation of siege machine technology But the invention of the cannon was dependent on gunpowder >> DeVRIES: We’re not exactly sure when gunpowder was invented It does appear that it was invented in China somewhere before the tenth century AD It also seems to have gone to the West

>> FRANCE: What’s distinctive about the Western use of it is the almost immediate attempt– at the very end of the 13th century– to put it in the tube and use it to fire balls of some sort or other, usually at fortifications You have to realize that it’d been known in the Arab world for well over 100 years and hadn’t been used like that, and had been used for hundreds of years for different purposes in China, but they had never, as it were, sought the development of the cannon in the way that the West did >> DeVRIES: Roger Bacon– who was considered to be one of the great scientists of the Middle Ages– he says if you could take this gunpowder, which is a combination of carbon, of saltpeter and of sulfur, and you could enclose one end of a tube, that gunpowder would be able to push out a projectile >> NARRATOR: That was the basic principle behind the cannon, the first explosive siege machine, developed in the 13th century >> FRANCE: The first cannons were pretty crude They looked a bit like big, lumpy vases laid on their sides, with a flared muzzle and a fat chamber to put the powder in, and they were very inefficient >> NARRATOR: The early cannons were inefficient because engineers had yet to harness the explosive nature of gunpowder >> FRANCE: Gunpowder is very slow-burning You have to pack it tight to make it explosive In so doing, you deprive it of air, so the gunpowder itself burns very slowly, a bit like a firework in the bottom of these tubes and therefore, projects the missile very badly So what looks flash-bang-smoke, pretty spectacular– actually, even if you’re on the receiving end– isn’t that effective, and certainly isn’t very accurate >> NARRATOR: Even though the early cannons were inaccurate, they were used alongside catapults and trebuchets at the Siege of Tournai in 1340, and again at the siege of Calais in 1346, because they were intimidating to defenders >> FRANCE: It took nearly 200 years to realize that if they granulated gunpowder– that is, they mix the powder in the correct ratios, then soaked it, usually in human urine, then dried it, it dries into a cake– you break the cake up and you get granules The granules allow plenty of air in the charge, and the gun becomes much more efficient >> NARRATOR: By the 15th century, cannons became an effective siege machine >> DeVRIES: Cannons can begin to bring down walls and fortifications and fortifications consequently have to devolve >> NARRATOR: In Scotland, King James II had a cannon called Mons Meg that fired a 19h-inch iron ball 1,400 yards This was the beginning of the end for high-walled fortifications >> FRANCE: This castle behind us withstood a several month-long siege in the 17th century against very effective cannons because the sheer weight of masonry here is still very effective >> NARRATOR: But castles like Caerphilly were rare By the 17th century, improvements in casting techniques, and the standardization of the iron ball, helped make the cannon the definitive siege machine Not only did the cannon change the nature of siege warfare, but it also changed the face of fortifications forever >> FRANCE: They began to make castles so that they could contain batteries of guns, and they developed this distinctive form– the star They built castles in a different way– rather low walls, rather deep ditches in front of them, multiple ditches, cleared areas around them to give fields of fire Garrisons became bigger, and they had lots and lots of cannon in them, big cannon as well, so that they could outrange the enemy >> NARRATOR: But not even these fortifications could withstand the ever-increasing accuracy and power of cannon fire A siege that used to take years now took only months or days Becoming too expensive to rebuild, high-walled fortifications were finally robbed of their value High, thick walls as a means of defense hit the dirt for good, and with it, one of the most essential obstacles in siege warfare >> NARRATOR: By the late 19th and early 20th century,

excavated earth replaced iron and stone as the materials of choice to fortify defenses in war In World War I, these defenses went underground, as siege warfare turned into trench warfare, and with it a new siege engine emerged >> NORMAN FRIEDMAN: Tanks were certainly conceived as a siege engine The whole idea was that the machine gunners couldn’t stop it, and the machine gunners would be the problem once the barrage lifted and you try to make your attack It could cross trenches It’s designed to be just big enough to go right over trenches >> NARRATOR: The first tanks able to breach sandbagged, barbed-wired, entrenched troops went into action in the Battle of Somme on September 15, 1916 They were essentially armored farm tractors >> ED HEASLEY: They put armor plate on it and cannons or machine guns on the thing, and they had a crew of eight men >> NARRATOR: Developed by the British army, this 28-ton siege engine traveled at a top speed of almost four miles an hour and crossed ten-foot trenches It was also equipped with two 57-millimeter cannons >> HEASLEY: The tank is essentially a moving gun platform It allows you to have a varied caliber of weapon in a vehicle moving along and targeting fixed positions >> NARRATOR: Early tanks were fickle mechanically, but employed in mass, they gained increasing success with accompanying infantry and artillery support But they only had a range of 23 miles >> FRIEDMAN: By World War II, you could go a lot faster and a lot further By the way, also your stuff didn’t break down as much That changed it a lot >> NARRATOR: In World War II, the tank set in motion the unlikely collaboration of historic opponents: siege machines and fortifications In essence, the tank became an effective movable fortress >> HEASLEY: It allows you to go to the enemy with a large amount of firepower and the mobility of the tank allows you not to have to build these large fortifications anymore >> NARRATOR: In the late 20th century, there was a revolution in siege machine technology and design Up until then, siege machines had absolutely no control over the projectiles once fired All the projectiles were, in military terms, “dumb.” >> BART KOSKO: Projectiles got smart and weapons got smart with the introduction of radar, and more sophisticated navigation systems The next big leap up came with the introduction of the GPS satellite system– those 24 orbiting satellites that could directly guide a missile or other components to the opponent At essence, in any weapon, are two things: energy and accuracy The energy part hasn’t changed much What’s changed over the years, fundamentally, is accuracy Each year, each month, smart weapons get smarter and that makes them more accurate >> NARRATOR: Computer technology fuels today’s growing arsenal of smart weapons, from remote- controlled unmanned combat vehicles to airborne laser systems and cruise missiles– the quintessential siege machine Launched from as far away as 1,000 miles, cruise missiles travel 500 miles per hour, hugging low terrain to avoid detection >> KOSKO: Today’s cruise missile is at the end of a long line of classic siege weapons It still conveys a lot of energy, but it’s far more accurate, and of course, can go greater distances But like the classic weapons, they’re very difficult to defend against But unlike those, they’re increasingly accurate >> NARRATOR: The “smart” projectile is now a universal siege machine, capable of breaching countries and continents anywhere on the planet >> KOSKO: The cost of cruise missiles continues to fall and more countries are acquiring them, and the trouble is, there’s no good way to defend against a cruise missile once it’s launched at you It is like trying to knock down a bullet with a bullet, and that is a fundamentally destabilizing force in modern warfare >> NARRATOR: While the age of formal siege warfare is long past, the development of siege weapons continues Are we as a species hardwired to attack and destroy fortifications of all kinds just because they are there? >> TOMS: You just can’t dispute that we are an adversarial species We do value our safety and protect ourselves, and so it’s

part of the human condition that we will always differ with each other; we will always fight each other, and we will always defend ourselves against each other >> FRIEDMAN: The real legacy of all the siege stuff is that every time people thought that it had been decided in favor of the defenders or the attackers permanently, turned out to be a very unpleasant surprise for someone And maybe that’s the most important lesson of all: that these things are not permanent, and it’s much more a cyclical thing It goes around >> DeVRIES: I think the notion that it boils down to men over technology is as true today as it was then, and I think that that is what we have to remember Military technology is always dependent upon that person who is developing it and who is also utilizing it and also defending against it >> NARRATOR: Up next: a new While the development of siege machines has historically been a deadly business, it has also been one of resourcefulness and inventiveness It’s those characteristics that typify the siege engine spin-offs of today There is no place on earth that demonstrates the power grace and crazy ingenuity of modern-day siege machines more than the world championship pumpkin chunking contest >> DAWN THOMPSON: You can’t say “punkin’ chunkin'” without a smile on your face >> That’s right >> NARRATOR: Pumpkin chunking is to these would-be warriors what firing 200-pound rocks was to their medieval counterparts >> ERIC LUDLUM: Once you start throwing stuff, you just have to go and throw some more stuff with different machines, and keep building stuff There’s just no going back >> NARRATOR: Pumpkin chunking began innocently enough in rural Delaware in 1986, evolving out of a barroom duel between “Big Bill” Thompson and a couple of his friends over the designs they fashioned on cocktail napkins >> WILLIAM THOMPSON: You draw machines on napkins and stuff like that, and threaten if you can beat the other guy, and then we set it up for a date the week after Halloween, come out high noon and challenge you with your best machine >> CHARLES BURTON: It just started out for fun There was only three machines that were out there playing at the time, and the furthest throw was 178 feet >> NARRATOR: Today, the annual contest draws 30,000 spectators and features more than 60 different contraptions, all of them based loosely on one kind of medieval siege machine or another >> ROGER NICHOLS: We don’t care really what time of history it came from We take whatever’s good from whenever and try and use and build the medieval machines stronger and more accurately >> ANDREW REED: This is The Regulator It’s a ancient trebuchet An old wartime machine is what it’s prototyped after And it’s made of scrap steel that we found out here in the yard It’s actually a burnt-down trailer that I cut in half >> SEAN REID: And before that, it was the trailer I lived in But we thought it was a nice frame to put a catapult on Fire in the hole! ( chains clinking ) >> JOHN HUBER: In 1996, we started on a boat trailer with small garage door springs and a very weak beam And I think our best throw was 50 feet The Boy Scouts beat us that year, so we went back with our tail between the legs >> NARRATOR: John Huber, an engineer at a local nuclear station, decided to build a machine with the help of his computer at work, one that would blow the Boy Scouts out of the water >> HUBER: We loaded this whole thing in CAD and broke it five times before we got all the weld geometry right and the materials And there are welds on this machine that say 196,000 foot-pounds of force ( trumpet fanfare blows ) >> NARRATOR: To demonstrate, Huber spray-painted a pumpkin florescent pink, so our camera could follow it in flight We saw it launch, but we never saw it land And for all we know, the pink pumpkin is still up there >> That baby went out there ( fanfare blows ) >> NARRATOR: For the contest, the rules are simple Pumpkins must weigh between eight and ten pounds, leave the machine intact and not be propelled by explosives ( cheering )

After that, you can pretty much figure that one man’s junk is another man’s siege engine prototype >> THOMPSON: There’s no prize money involved Just the bragging rights The right to say you’re the World Champion Punkin’ Chunker >> HARRY LACKHOVE: I was the first one to ever try plastic pipe And it worked It didn’t blow up in my face or anything And we cranked that sucker up and put a pumpkin in it, and it went 2,655 feet >> NARRATOR: Those are bragging rights, and that was the world record for an eight-pound pumpkin pitched from this modified air cannon back in 1995 While chunking a pumpkin the farthest usually captures the crowd’s attention ( cheering and applause ) there’s nothing quite like a siege machine with accuracy >> NATHAN PARKER: I haven’t hit anything yet Actually, no, yesterday, we did hit that truck We hit her twice in one shot >> NARRATOR: Using his allowance money and donated scrap metal, 14-year-old Jake Burton and his buddies assembled one of the most accurate air cannons ever to wage war on an old Chevy, abandoned at the end of the pasture ( cheering ) >> JAKE: We fill this up with air pressure, about, between Well, it depends how heavy your pumpkin is And then that depends how much air you need and how far you want to shoot it ( cheering ) We can shoot pretty much anything that’ll fit in the eight-inch barrel and that isn’t too heavy And we shot up to 2,300 feet, around there >> NARRATOR: Unlike soldiers in the Middle Ages who used siege machines to break down fixed defenses, chunkers just can’t resist the simple pleasure and irresistible power of flinging something– anything– through the air with their ingenious devices >> CHARLES: I’ve seen toilets thrown We’ve seen beer kegs thrown We’ve seen watermelons, cabbage >> Cole slaw, coming up >> CHARLES: Cantaloupes, lettuce, pumpkins, of course, white and yellow ( fanfare blows ) ( cheering ) >> THOMPSON: If you make somebody laugh, you’ve got them If there’s not enough laughing going on, you got to let your hair down and play and enjoy life a little bit And that’s what this is about, the whole festival >> NARRATOR: It’s ironic that machines that once destroyed entire cities and displaced thousands now draw a crowd From time immemorial to the 21st century, there has been an enduring fascination with the primitive mechanics and brute strength of siege machines Captioning sponsored by A&E TELEVISION NETWORKS Captioned by Media Access Group at WGBH