February 26, 2006

Cherchez la vache!

I'm a guy. There, I've said it. That, and the fact that I've got a degree in civil engineering, makes my interests gravitate towards mechanical devices and their design. Quilting (which the Mrs. likes to do), will continue to remain a mystery to me - unless someone comes up with a way to shave one c.c. of material from the combustion chamber of said quilt and increase it's horsepower by 27% without increasing fuel consumption. Or maybe they'll come up with a new powder that allows said quilt to shoot with a flatter trajectory that increases it's effective range out to 900 yards instead of the normal 600.

My wife generally puts up with my obsessions, but she sometimes draws the line. Fortunately for me, she usually draws the line at reasonable places, like rebuilding the engine of a 1963 Aeromacchi Sprint Model C on our coffee table (I can do it on the old beat-up coffee table in the basement, but not on our "Sunday Go-To-Meetin" one in the living room), or decorating our guest bedroom with reproduction posters of original Russian-language drawings showing the correct way to break down and maintain the 1895 Nagant revolver in 7.62mm (prints of ducks and deer are OK). She's even gotten me items from the local flea market as Christmas presents that warm my poor little trailer-trash heart: a 4-foot tall inflatible bottle of Shiner Bock and an old Schlitz beer sign with a lighted keg that throws disco-ball beams of light across the room. Don't tell her I said this, but I'm a pretty lucky guy. Last year for Christmas, she bought me a new shotgun after seeing me dither and blather on for a couple of years about wanting a new one to replace my battered but trusty Mossberg 500 but never actually doing anything until "I can find one on the sale to end all sales". After that, I told her that she's covered for Christmas, birthday, valentines, anniversary and even groundhog day presents for the next couple of years, but bless her heart she ignored me (like she is wont to do on other issues).

She's outdone herself this year. For my birthday last weekend, she did her shopping at THIS website. This gift makes that stupid freakin' pony I got back in third grade look like a pair of dress socks by comparison.

Medieval siege engines have been a hobby of mine for the last 10 or 15 years. I really got interested in them after an article in Outside magazine in the early 90's outlined the efforts of a bunch of crazy loons (ERRR, I mean "prophetic visionaries") to build a giant trebuchet in a remote part of Texas. According to their optimistic calculations, they were "going to be able to hurl a 1962 Buick 1000 feet". Before that, I had considered siege engines to be really cool artifacts of a bygone age, but that article opened my eyes to the uses of these tools in the modern era.

My old college buddy from ISU who lives on a lake near Kansas City: We've discussed using a trebuchet or maybe an mangonel to launch flaming bags of dog-doo at the inconsiderate louts who stop their boats at his dock and fish his "personal crappie honey-hole" without permission.

My tailgating companions at football games: Mounting a smaller siege engine on top of our converted school bus would be a nice "old school" way to launch debris at those loudmouthed jerks from Nebraska who come to town every two years.

My parents have an 80-acre parcel West of town where my wife and I would like to build a house someday. One of the times when we were out there on top of the ridge admiring the view of the "mighty" Howerdon Creek watershed, I suggested "Hey, if I built a trebuchet here, we could park an old junker car at the back corner of the pasture and launch bowling balls at it for kicks." I'm going to take the fact that she hasn't tried to smother me in my sleep since making that observation as the equivalent of "OK honey, that's a GREAT idea. Why don't you add a keg fridge onto the design while you're at it?".

My recent birthday present consists of a kit for building a tabletop trebuchet, along with the computer modeling programs for both traditional trebuchets and the newer "floating arm type" trebuchets". The CD's also contain plans for building several types of trebuchets and a small copy of the Roman mangonel, along with a couple of books detailing the history of siege engines and their use in modern times.

For those without my obsession, the mangonel is what most people picture when they hear "catapault". It's a short device with a stop that arrests the forward momentum of the throwing arm, which derives it's strength from a tightly wound skein of rope (I have seen plans on building these using a large bundle of garage door springs, but let's stick to authentic designs for the time being). The throwing arm is limited to rotating through 90 degrees, and the mangonel throws it's projectiles into a relatively flat trajectory (compared to other devices which will be mentioned later). The petraria is a device that uses a bow to power a mangonel-type of device, and a ballista is an ancient Greek device that is designed to launch bolts towards a target, kind of like a large crew-served crossbow. The trebuchet is my personal favorite. It's a machine that uses a counterweight and an arm that rotates closer to 180 degrees to send it's payload in a high arc downrange. The trebuchet was the pinnacle of siege engine technology, and if not for the invention of gunpowder, we would probably still be using them today. Their high trajectory is what really makes me giggle. Watching the "French Castle" scene from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", I think the high arc of the "vache" and the hollow wooden rabbit indicate that a trebuchet was the unseen siege engine used to get them airborne.

If you're saying to yourself right now "Oh yeah, I remember that episode of Northern Exposure where Chris built a trebuchet and used it to throw a piano across town", STOP. RIGHT. THERE. I don't begrudge that show it's quirky sensibilities, but I refuse to acknowledge any inspiration from it (personally, I didn't see this episode until the late 90's in reruns). It would be like Stephen Hawking saying "I got this idea about black holes from a really cool episode of Martha Stewart Living", or hearing Harold Ramis admit that "the idea for "Stripes" came from an issue of Tiger Beat magazine." Some ideas NEED to come from drunken binges. As the newspaper reporter at the end of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" said so aptly: "When the legend becomes truth, print the legend." I'll cop to being inspired by "The Holy Grail", but admitting that Northern Freakin' Exposure helped inspire my madness would just flat out require me to tear up my Man Card, and that dog won't hunt.

Anyway, enough about my tender sensibilities and back to my situation. I've got a kit for a small "toy" trebuchet that can launch marbles 20 feet, and design tools for building similar devices of infinite size. I'm probably going to try to build a 1:10 scale model of the fearsome WARWOLF trebuchet as my next step, and this device can throw a one-pound weight up to 100 feet. WARWOLF was the feared siege engine built by King Edward "Longshanks" to subjugate the Scotts in the 1300's, (yeah, the guy from "Braveheart") an any further discussion of his contributions to history should be directed to the llamas, who've forgotten more about these topics than I know. This is the point where "my fist-swinging intersects with someone else's face". Our house in town is on a 66' by 132' lot, and due to the lack of "elbow room" inherent in living around other non-siege engine fans, this device will probably be banished to the farm, and possibly hauled on a trailer to family events where "Crazy Uncle Russ" can supervise all the in-law spawn in their hurling endeavors.

Now don't get me wrong - a trebuchet that could launch a 1962 Buick 1000 feet downrange makes me giddy as a schoolgirl because, like I mentioned early in the article....I'm a guy. The problem with that device is it's sheer size. The guys with Thor in Texas were talking about spending upwards of $50 grand to get it off the ground, and considering that A.) they never actually got it to work as far as I can tell, and B.) that figure is in unadjusted 1995 dollars, and probably is as accurate as asking your aunt "so, how much did you lose at the casino last week?" or asking a defense contractor "how much would it cost to upgrade the armor on this vehicle another 50%?" - it's become very apparent to me that any attempt to build a device this size would probably require me to add a bedroom and bathroom onto the device, because I'd either be living on it, or IN A VAN, DOWN BY THE RIVER. With that in mind, it isn't unreasonable to consider building a device that could launch a bowling ball 500 feet, or a small pumpkin 1000 feet.

The best part about this new gift is that consent has been implied. It's not as if I came home schnockered one night and told her "Hey, honeybunny, look what I've got!"

Posted by Russ from Winterset at February 26, 2006 02:02 PM | TrackBack

damn, but that is coo-el!

Posted by: Kathy at February 26, 2006 09:21 PM

i'm a girl. there, i've said it. three guy friends and i built two trebuchets in high school. we launched pumpkins. it very much rocked!

Posted by: amelie at February 27, 2006 07:32 AM

There's a competition for this stuff somewhere and the goal is to see who can launch some produce (pumpkin, perhaps) the farthest!!

; )

Posted by: Chrissy at February 27, 2006 08:53 AM

amelie, you're apparently a carrier of the "cool chick" gene.

Chrissy, I think the "Punkin' Chunkin' Contest" is held somewhere in Delaware every year. I remember seeing a special on the competition on Discovery. The "amateur" classes would be cool, because you're competing against other machines built in garages, but the "pro" class is strictly for those with NASCAR money. Some of those pneumatic pumpkin cannons can pitch a gourd over a mile.

Posted by: Russ from Winterset at February 27, 2006 09:24 AM

A girl, yes, but I'd love to be one of the Mythbusters.

Posted by: Fausta at February 27, 2006 10:44 AM

Isn't Kari basically running the show now? Adam and Jamie show up when it's time to blow things up or smash them, but Kari's the one that seems to get all the day to day stuff done.

Posted by: Russ from Winterset at February 27, 2006 12:19 PM

my guys and i launched pumpkins at a pumpkinfest two years in a row -- and now we're off in college, and not around. 'tis sad.

pictures of our trebs can be found here: http://nuts.landofchaos.net/

Posted by: amelie at February 27, 2006 04:25 PM


Posted by: BOB at March 30, 2006 01:00 PM


Posted by: ur mom sucked me last night at March 30, 2006 01:00 PM
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