The Archimedes Solar Death Ray

The Archimedes Death Ray is one of the most creative uses of solar power in ancient history.

September 12, 2019 3 min read

archimedes death ray

Solar energy is powering Planet Earth like never before. It charges your Tesla, powers up your phone, and--as we love to point out at GoSun--cooks food quickly and easily. But did you know about the Archimedes Death Ray?

Harnessing the sun, however, is nothing new. Solar energy is arguable the most primitive form of energy. At least as far back as the Roman Empire, a primitive concentrated solar energy ovens were built with glass and polished metal.

That's not even the largest concentrated solar array in the ancient world. The 3rd-century BC Greek scientist Archimedes once (allegedly) incinerated an entire Roman fleet using an array of mirrors to produce a death ray.

Archimedes Death Ray

According to ancient accounts, Archimedes, already a famed inventor of the Mediterranean city-state of Syracuse, destroyed the naval might of the Romans with his ingenuity. In 212 BC Rome had laid siege to Syracuse in the course of the Second Punic War. The Sicilian mathematical genius first assaulted the Roman flotilla with catapults and enormous cranes equipped with grappling hooks. Archimedes then roll out his pièce de résistance: a giant round mirror, flanked by smaller mirrors. The reflective surfaces concentrated the sun's rays on the wooden ships, building up to a primitive laser. The solar ray gained enough concentration to kindle a flame and burn the entire Roman fleet.

According to Byzantine author Tzetzes, he constructed a kind of hexagonal mirror and at an interval proportionate to the size of the mirror. Archimedes set similar small mirrors with four edges, moving by links and a kind of hinge. He made the glass the center of the sun’s rays, successfully concentrating the energy into a beam and reducing ships to ashes.

The Archimedes Death Ray makes for a thrilling account and depicts the Greek science as an ancient James Bond villain. But is it fact or fiction? Historians note it is not recorded in the most ancient accounts of Archimedes' life. Livy, Polybius, and Plutarch gave detailed descriptions of the Siege of Syracuse but make no mention of the heat ray. Lucian is the first to mention the weapon, but he wrote four centuries after the siege and was known as a satirist. Anthemius of Tralles first mentioned the use of mirrors only in the sixth century, and Tzetzes' account comes from the twelfth century.

Modern scientists are more skeptical. Researchers in the 20th century have tested whether such an ancient weapon was possible. The results were mixed. One MIT team tried to ignite a mock wooden ship in 2005 but could only produce smoke.

In 1973, Greek scientist Ioannis Sakkas performed an experiment in Skaramagas naval base near Athens using 7o copper-coated mirrors, the type that would have existed in Archimedes' day. He redirected sunlight toward a mock plywood ship 200 feet away. The model burst into flames after a few seconds. But Roman ships were larger and made of more durable cedar, suggesting they would have not ignited.

Others have tried to copy the experiment. In 2006, an MIT professor and his students tried their hand at building a Archimedean solar array using the same materials available in Third Century-BC  Syracuse. They used materials found in a Roman vessel, mostly wood and oakum soaked in pitch. A parabolic mirror was fashioned to recreate the ancient solar laser. But the team failed to produce the ready combustion they hoped for. They produced nothing more than smoke at a distance of 150 feet from the boats and only achieved ignition at 75 feet.

While other researchers have had better success with reenactments of Archimedes's mirrors, nobody has achieved the same success as he is recorded to have created. The ancient death ray is likely a myth. But that the myth is so widely believed is more of a testimony to the legend of Archimedes' genius than the technological plausibility of Roman-era solar weaponry.

Lessons from the Archimedes Death Ray

Whether or not the Archimedes Death Ray ever existed, the ancient scientist should be credited with using solar energy to improve the lives of the people. At GoSun we have the same vision. However, our goal is to make great food and a carbon-neutral solar powered future, not incinerate others. Still, the sprit of scientific inquiry always deserves to be celebrated!

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