Friday, April 18, 2008

The Great British Catapult Society

A Scud It's Not, But the Trebuchet Hurls a Mean Piano... Giant Medieval War Machine Is Wowing British Farmers and Scaring the Sheep
by Glynn Mapes

ACTON ROUND, England - With surprising grace, the grand piano sails through the sky a hundred feet above a pasture here, finally returning to earth in a fortissimo explosion of wood chunks, ivory keys and piano wire.

Nor is the piano the strangest thing to startle the grazing sheep this Sunday morning. A few minutes later, a car soars by - a 1975 blue two-door Hillman, to be exact - following the same flight path and meeting the same loud fate. Pigs fly here, too. In recent months, many dead 500-pound sows (two of them wearing parachutes) have passed overhead, as has the occasional dead horse.

It's the work of Hew Kennedy's medieval siege engine, a four-story tall, 30-ton behemoth that's the talk of bucolic Shropshire, 140 miles northwest of London. In ancient times, such war machines were dreaded implements of destruction, flinging huge missiles, including plague-ridden horses, over the walls of besieged castles. Only one full-sized one exists today, designed and built by Mr. Kennedy, a wealthy landowner, inventor, military historian and - need it be said? - full-blown eccentric.

At Acton Round Hall, Mr. Kennedy's handsome Georgian manor house here, one enters the bizarre world of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. A stuffed baboon hangs from the dining room chandelier ("Shot in Africa. Nowhere else to put it," Mr. Kennedy explains). Lining the walls are dozens of halberds and suits of armor. A full suit of Indian elephant armor, rebuilt by Mr. Kennedy, shimmers resplendently on an elephant-size frame. In the garden outside stands a 50-foot-high Chinese pagoda.

Capping this scene, atop a hill on the other side of the 620-acre Kennedy estate, is the siege engine, punctuating the skyline like an oil derrick. Known by its 14-century French name, "trebuchet" (pronounced tray-boo-shay), it's not to be confused with a catapult, a much smaller device that throws rocks with a spoon-like arm propelled by twisted ropes or animal gut.

Mr. Kennedy, a burly, energetic 52-year-old, and Richard Barr, his 46-year-old neighbor and partner, have spent a year and £10,000 ($17,000) assembling the trebuchet. They have worked from ancient texts, some in Latin, and crude wood-block engravings of siege weaponry.

The big question is why.

Mr. Kennedy looks puzzled, as if the thought hadn't occurred to him before. "Well, why not? It's bloody good fun!" he finally exclaims. When pressed, he adds that for several hundred years military technicians have been trying fruitlessly to reconstruct a working trebuchet. Cortez built one for the siege of Mexico City. On its first shot, it flung a huge boulder straight up - and then straight down, demolishing the machine. In 1851 Napoleon III had a go at it, as an academic exercise. His trebuchet was poorly balanced and barely managed to hurl the missiles - backward. "Ours works a hell of a lot better than the Frogs', which is a satisfaction," Mr. Kennedy says with relish.

How it works seems simple enough. The heart of the siege engine is a three-ton, 60-foot tapered beam made from laminated wood. It's pivoted near the heavy end, to which is attached a weight box filled with 5.5 tons of steel bar. Two huge A-frames made from lashed-together tree trunks support a steel axle, around which the beam pivots. When the machine is at rest, the beam is vertical, slender end at the top and weight box just clearing the ground.

When launch time comes, a farm tractor cocks the trebuchet, slowly hauling the slender end of the beam down and the weighted end up. Several dozen nervous sheep, hearing the tractor and knowing what comes next, make a break for the far side of the pasture. A crowd of 60 friends and neighbors buzzes with anticipation as a 30-foot, steel-cable sling is attached - one end to the slender end of the beam and the other to the projectile, in this case a grand piano (purchased by the truckload from a junk dealer).

"If you see the missile coming toward you, simply step aside," Mr. Kennedy shouts to the onlookers. Then, with a great groaning, the beam is let go. As the counterweight plummets, the piano in its sling whips through an enormous arc, up and over the top of the trebuchet and down the pasture, a flight of 125 yards. The record for pianos is 151 yards (an upright model, with less wind resistance). A 112-pound iron weight made it 235 yards. Dead hogs go for about 175 yards, and horses 100 yards; the field is cratered with the braves of the beasts, buried by a backhoe where they landed.

Mr. Kennedy has been studying and writing about ancient engines of war since his days at Sandhurst, Britain's military academy, some 30 years ago. But what spurred him to build one was, as he puts it, "my nutter cousin" in Northumberland, who put together a pint-sized trebuchet for a county fair. The device hurled porcelain toilets soaked in gasoline and set afire. A local paper described the event under the headline "Those Magnificent Men and Their Flaming Latrines."

Building a full-sized siege engine is a more daunting task. Mr. Kennedy believes that dead horses are the key. That's because engravings usually depict the trebuchets hurling boulders, and there is no way to determine what the rocks weigh, or the counterweight necessary to fling them. But a few drawings show dead horses being loaded onto trebuchets, putrid animals being an early form of biological warfare. Since horses weigh now what they did in the 1300s, the engineering calculations followed easily.

One thing has frustrated Mr. Kennedy and his partner: They haven't found any commercial value for the trebuchet. Says a neighbor helping to carry the piano to the trebuchet, "Too bad Hew can't make the transition between building this marvelous machine and making any money out of it."

It's not for lack of trying. Last year Mr. Kennedy walked onto the English set of the Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie, volunteering his trebuchet for the scene where Robin and his sidekick are catapulted over a wall. "The directors insisted on something made out of plastic and cardboard," he recalls with distaste. "Nobody cares about correctness these days." [A year or so after this article was printed, the trebuchet was shown hurling a piano during an episode of the American television show "Northern Exposure."]

More recently, he has been approached by an entrepreneur who wants to bus tourists up from London to see cars and pigs fly through the air. So far, that's come to naught.

Mr. Kennedy looks to the U.S. as his best chance of getting part of his investment back: A theme park could commission him to build an even bigger trebuchet that could throw U.S.- sized cars into the sky. "It's an amusement in America to smash up motor cars, isn't it?" he inquires hopefully.

Finally, there's the prospect of flinging a man into space - a living man, that is. This isn't a new idea, Mr. Kennedy points out: Trebuchets were often used to fling ambassadors and prisoners of war back over castle walls, a sure way to demoralize the opposition.

Some English sports parachutists think they can throw a man in the air and bring him down alive. In a series of experiments on Mr. Kennedy's siege machine, they've thrown several man-size logs and two quarter-ton dead pigs into the air; one of the pigs parachuted gently back to earth, the other landed rather more forcefully.

Trouble is, an accelerometer carried inside the logs recorded a centrifugal force during the launch of as much as 20 Gs (the actual acceleration was zero to 90 miles per hour in 1.5 seconds). Scientists are divided over whether a man can stand that many Gs for more than a second or two before his blood vessels burst. The parachutists are nonetheless enthusiastic. But Mr. Kennedy thinks the idea may only be pie in the sky.

"It would be splendid to throw a bloke, really splendid," he says wistfully. "He'd float down fine. But he'd float down dead."

... and here's an new member of the society, from the BBC, compliments of my friend Pauline:

Dung catapult to target vandals

A former stuntman has warned would-be vandals they face being fired at with a catapult loaded with chicken manure.

Former stuntman Joe Weston-Webb, 70, said his offices in Kegworth, Notts, have been attacked by arsonists and he was fighting back with the weaponry.

Mr Weston Webb said: "There's no way anyone will get I thought I would set up my own defence."

A police spokesman said they would give "practical security advice" but warned against using "unreasonable force".

Warning sign

Mr Weston-Webb, who supplies flooring to hit BBC show Strictly Come Dancing, said he will also use a cannon, which once shot his wife Mary across the River Avon in a circus show, to fire a railway sleeper at intruders.

"I have put up a sign warning anyone who enters the property that they could get hit with a railway sleeper or chicken poo.

"I have got all this old kit and I am going to put it to some use and stop it rather than letting it rot in a field."

Mr Weston-Webb said the arsonists had caused £2,000 of damage to his offices.

He said the 30ft (9m) catapult would be dragged into location with a tractor and loaded with chicken manure. "It will fire and cover the person with the stuff - and we will be able to smell who it is," he explained. Mr Weston-Webb said the device will not injure anyone because "a bag of chicken poo isn't going to do much".

The businessman, who runs Grumpy Joe's Flooring Sales, is also installing 32 CCTV cameras.

Insp Jeff Haywood from Nottinghamshire Police, said: "A crime prevention officer will be making contact with the complainant to offer some practical security advice.

"The officer will give tips around conventional security techniques, such as alarms, lighting and locks, and also around the use of reasonable force.

"The law allows homeowners to protect themselves and their property with reasonable force if they are under threat from an intruder.

"However, the reasonable force must be proportionate to the threat. The setting up of booby traps is outside the scope of the law and is something Nottinghamshire Police would advise against."

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