I love Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. The only show I like more on D is Dirty Jobs. Seriously, Mike Rowe is the funniest guy this side of Eddie Izzard. But that's not what I'm here to talk about.
In this episode of Mythbusters, Jamie, Adam and a bunch of folks from MIT proved, to my satisfaction at least, that the old story of Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes setting Roman ships on fire with a "death ray" made of parabolic mirrors just could not have happened. It became painfully obvious in the course of the show that the wall of mirrors spoken of in Medieval manuscripts would not have set fire to moving triremes; in fact it barely made a ship standing still smolder. All the same, there was no hint of what - if anything - the Greeks might have used instead. Now, Italian scientists think they know what Archimedes used to blow up the Romans during the siege of Syracuse circa 214 BCE.
This article, featured on MSN.com's Live Science, details the work of Cesare Rossi of the University of Naples. Rossi, a mechanical engineer, has determined that steam cannons firing hollow, clay balls filled with Greek fire were the probable weapons invented by Archimedes. The cannons could easily be made of wood (another fact proven by the Mythbusters) and a small amount of water (the article notes a tenth of a cup) could produce enough steam to send the gruesome projectiles toward the Roman fleet.
Unfortunately, just what Greek fire was is beyond the comprehension of modern science, which I personally find pretty cool. All the same, it was used to great success in military operations including naval battles and, as the article points out, was a favorite weapon of the Byzantine Empire. There's no reason to imagine that someone as smart as Archimedes would have overlooked it's potential in dealing with an invading flotilla.
Rossi and two military historians with the mellifluous names Flavio and Ferruccio Russo plan to attempt a recreation of Archimedes' steam cannons in the near future. This sounds like darn good times to me. Please film the whole process, gentlemen. What fun to see ancient cannons at work; though where you all will get the Greek fire is beyond me.
Finally, as the article notes, all of Archimedes' ingenuity was for naught. The Romans took Syracuse in 212 BCE and Archimedes was himself put to the sword. Another intellect lost to war. But those cannons still sound spectacular.