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The second project undertaken was to build something between an arbalest and a catapult. Leonardo Da Vinci drew it as an 80 foot war machine, utilizing a crossbow type design like the arbalest, but launching, not arrows or spears, but a large spherical stone. It was to be used to defend a castle, launching the shot at advancing troops.

The second team was slightly larger than the first. The crew included engineers, metal workers, wood workers, etc. When designing the project, they decided to keep with the “spirit” of the machine that Da Vinci had drawn, but use their modern understanding of physics and technology to make it better.

First, they hacked off approximately 20 feet. They saw the extra footage as unnecessary. Instead of using single beams of wood to make the arms of the massive bow, they decided to make them lighter and springier using a laminate technique. They would use a more solid core, but use springier wood glued in layers on the outside, thus, theoretically, making it shoot farther. They were expecting a range much farther than what Da Vinci had estimated. For safety reasons, they used an electric crank to draw the rope back.

Their production went fairly smoothly with minimal setbacks from measuring errors. They were fairly confident that the machine would even exceed their expectations. The morning of their test drew nigh. The massive machine was transported to a nearby weapons testing facility and assembled. As it turned out…they were dead wrong. The machine was barely able to send the stone flying 40 feet. Much less than the 150-200 they were estimating.

What had happened? They were not sure. They had a few weeks to try again and they decided to go back as much as possible, to Da Vinci’s design. Amid high stress, frayed nerves and problems with finding the right supplies they slogged forward. Even when they got the lumber, the trees were problematic, warped and knotted. They did what they could with what they had and tried it again.

The second attempt with a design closer to Da Vinci’s was much more successful. They started with the machine at one quarter strength. The new design fired the missile twice as far as the first attempt using the modern design. They increased the strength. It went farther. At half strength it fired nearly 100 feet. Then it cracked. Before they could test it at full strength, it cracked, probably due to the poor materials. They were heartbroken at what happened, but were pleased with the results they got before then.

Later the head engineer saw that Da Vinci was unsure of his own design and had designed the war machine with removable sections of the bow arms, thus allowing the tension to be adjusted as needed until it could be perfected.

In short, they failed when they changed the design. The succeeded more, the closer they got to the true design. It just goes to show, you can’t improve on genius.

An article on it with a slideshow of the project