The Syracuse heat ray

The Roman Empire fought three long, painful wars as they struggled for control of the Mediterranean. These were known as the Punic Wars and in the second of these skirmishes, was the Siege of Syracuse.

The campaign lasted for two years as the Romans struggled to break through the city’s fortifications. The battlements were the brainchild of Greek inventor Archimedes. Here are the contraptions that protected the city from one of the greatest armies of all time:

Claw of Archimedes

Being on the coast of Sicily, the Romans had to undertake a naval offensive. However as their triremes got close to the walls, the Archimedes’ claw was deployed. This huge pulley system picked up the unassuming Roman vessel and plunged it back into the sea and to its demise. A video of this revolutionary device can be seen here

An (exaggerated) illustration of the claw from a 17th century artist.

Heat ray
On the walls of Syracuse, Archimedes ordered the fitting of mirrors. These reflected the sun’s rays onto the Roman galleys in such a powerful way that the boats caught fire.


Much has been made of the true effectiveness of the ‘heat rays’ with many claiming the mirrors simply could not harness enough sunlight to set a trireme alight. Contemporary experiments still remain undecided on the true power of these mirrors but either way, it was an ingenious contraption thought up by the great Greek mind that was Archimedes.

With the continuing brilliance of the Greek polymath putting the siege in a stalemate, Syracuse was holding out against the onslaught.

Make sure you catch part two next saturday when How It Works will look at the Roman reaction.