A Multidisciplinary Investigation of Medieval Flamethrowers: A Case Study
By W. Wayne Neel and Jon-Michael Hardin
Paper given at the ASEE SE 2011 Conference (2011)
Abstract: Multidisciplinary projects provide a unique opportunity to foster critical thinking in undergraduate engineering students and to help students develop an understanding of the design process. These types of projects can also motivate student interest in the engineering design process. In this paper, the authors will present a case study of one such interdisciplinary project, which combined engineering analysis and a study of technological history, conducted by an undergraduate mechanical engineering student. The student investigated three different designs for a hand-held flamethrower that projected a highly flammable liquid, known as Greek fire.
For this project, a student used historical accounts to design, construct, and test each of three flamethrower designs to determine the feasible operation for each. This work concentrated on the student’s ascertaining the similarities and differences between the three designs and on the student’s developing effective operating and valve systems. The original project was to investigate Chinese and Byzantine designs, but during the project, information in the Arab design was obtained and that design was also constructed by the student.
Warfare in the Byzantine Empire between the 7th and 11th centuries CE saw the development of weapons systems using fire. Partially responsible for this revolution in weapons was the creation of a highly flammable liquid by the Syrian architect Callinicos in 7th century CE. This was known as liquid fire, later referred to as Greek fire. Greek fire was utilized in one particularly effective weapon, the flamethrower. Large flamethrowers were mounted on naval vessels and sprayed enemy vessels with flaming liquid. There are few historical accounts written by the Byzantines or others describing their weapon, likely due to attempts to keep the design a secret.
A hand-held flamethrower was also developed. The hand-held version of the flamethrower was capable of projecting a stream of fluid for a short distance. Around 900 CE the Chinese seemingly used the Byzantine design, at least in principle. They documented the weapon, drawing basic diagrams and providing descriptive narrative of their version of the flamethrower’s design which appears in the Wu Ching Tsung Yao, or the Collection of the most Important Military Techniques, written in the early 11th century. The Arabs developed a hand-held flamethrower along the same lines as the Byzantine and their version is shown in the Elegant Book of Trebuchets with little narrative.