December 20, 2023 | Janet Mowat

Militant Facts About War Machines in History

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds".—The Bhagavad Gita

It’s often said that conflict inspires scientific advancement. After all, a matter of life and demise can provide excellent creative motivation. So just what have civilizations come up with to give them the upper hand on the battlefield? Here are 42 facts about the machines that have smashed, shot, burned, and gone bang throughout history.

42. Delayed Start

Though early humans started using spears about 400,000 years ago, it took a long time before they started developing more advanced arms. The first known are the atlatl (a device used to aid in throwing spears), boomerang, and the bow and arrow, and they didn't turn up until 40,000-20,000 BC.

war machines

41. Chariots of Fire

Chariots existed for a long time as an behind-drawn mode of transportation before they were used for conflict. The army use of horse-drawn chariots spread through the Middle East around 1700 BC, with the Assyrians starting the trend of attaching scythes to their wheels.

War Machines in History factsPxfuel

40. Where’s the Hare?

One of the first siege engines we know of was an improvement on the battering ram. The story goes that Ceras the Carthaginian built a wooden base on wheels with the ram suspended from a frame, so that it could knock down walls with less manpower. Since it was so slow to manoeuvre, it gained the name the "Tortoise".

War Machines in History factsShutterstock

39. With One Hand Tied Behind My Back

The Chinese were the first to invent crossbows, around the 5th century BC. This new weapon was a big improvement over the bow and arrow since it could shoot multiple bolts, be cocked with one hand, and was more powerful and accurate.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

38. Go Big or Go Home

At about the same time that the Chinese were mechanizing the bow and arrow, the Greeks took the same idea in a different direction. Catapults were invented around 399 BC by Greek engineers in Syracuse. They at first shot bolts and were similar to a crossbow, but they were so big they had to be supported on platforms. Improved versions of this invention remained in use until the 19th century AD.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

37. Bring Your Mace

Though modern tanks wouldn’t appear until the First World W., an early armored vehicle was invented in India in the 4th century BC. A covered chariot armed with a swinging mace was one of many army advancements under India’s Shishunaga Dynasty.

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36. It’s All Fun and Games Until...

King Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, placed high value on siege arms, and formed an elite corps of army engineers to work on them. It’s understandable, since he lost an eye to a catapult in battle.

History’s Deadliest Assassins factsWikimedia Commons

35. Call in the Engineers

Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, used his engineers to help him conquer cities all over the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. For example, in the siege of Tyre, the enemy city was surrounded by water and so was protected from conventional siege arms. In response, Alexander’s engineers first built a causeway for their machines to bridge the gap to the island, then fitted boats with giant battering rams to breach the walls.

Screenshot of Alexander The Great looking at front with his soldiers - from Alexander the Great (2014)Gruppe 5, Alexander the Great (2014)

34. Ahead of Their Time

The Greeks even came up with an ancient machine piece. The polybolos was a bolt-shooter that used a chain drive to automatically rooster , load, and shoot many bolts in succession—it has been called the most advanced weapon built in ancient times.

War Machines in History factsFlickr, SBA73

33. Ancestor of the Arcade Claw Machine

One of the most famous ancient scientists was the Syracusan Archimedes, who’s credited with the invention of several spectacular war machines. Among them was the Claw, a giant swinging arm attached to a naval ship that would either drop a massive weight onto enemy ships to shatter their hulls, or else grapple the ship and yank it around.

War Machines in History factsWikipedia

32. Eureka? Maybe Not

Another invention attributed to Archimedes is the Demise Ray: a group of mirrors that would direct a beam of sunlight onto a ship and set it on fire. As cool as that sounds, modern experiments have shown that it probably wouldn’t have worked. Myth busted?

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

31. Laser's Forgotten Cousin

Before the Laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), invented in 1960, came the Maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). The Maser was at first heralded as a "ray piece" and though it turned out to be ineffective as a weapon, it’s still used for a variety of applications, such as atomic clocks.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

30. A Clever Workaround

The Carthaginians had an excellent navy, whereas the Romans were far better at hand-to-hand combat. The Romans worked around this with the corvus, a giant wooden arm with a spike on the end that would drop from their ship onto the enemy’s deck and hold tight. Army men could then use it as a bridge, allowing the Romans to use hand-to-hand fighting in naval conflict.

War Machines in History factsWikipeida

29. A Star is Born

Hydrogen explosive, also known as thermonuclear explosive, were first tested by the USA in 1952. They are thousands of times more powerful than the fission explosive used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their nuclear fusion is the same process that happens inside the sun.

Lucky to be aliveFlickr

28. Trust No One

After WWII, the Soviets were able to develop their own atom explosive thanks in part to espionage. Karl Fuchs, a German physicist, was a major contributor to the Manhattan Project in the USA, and was involved in the early design of the hydrogen explosive. He was also a Soviet spy.

War Machines in History factsWikipedia

27. High Maintenance

One of the most important machines of conflict in the 21st century has been the army drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle/System. Though drone technology has improved vastly since the First World W(see #9), they still require a large number of people to operate and maintain: whereas an F-16 needs about 100 people working on it, a drone can require up to 180.

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26. Things That Go Bang

The Huolongjing, a 14th-century Chinese text on weaponry, describes some of the first gunpowder-based arms. One, the fire lance, was a long spear like weapon that was a combination firearm & flamethrower: it could launch arrows, fragments of projectiles, and could also shoot flames from its barrel. Other arms found in the book include limped and cannons.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

25. How Do You Shoot This Thing?

The first true arms were Chinese hand cannons, invented in the 13th century. They had no trigger, and fired stones and arrows. Eventually, special round stones were developed to be used as shells , and then by the 15th century, metal balls started being used.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

24. The Three Arquebusiers?

The earliest firearm with a trigger was the arquebus, a European long piece that rested on a tripod or other support. Though at first they didn’t have a trigger, like the hand cannon, by 1475 a matchlock trigger was added. The heavy version of the arquebus became known as the musket.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

23. Ring Ring

The word "belfry" at first referred not to the belltower of a church (as it does now), but to a siege tower. Used in middle ages, belfries were several stories tall, filled with archers and foot army men, equipped with drawbridges, and hung with wet hides to prevent fire. "Belfry" probably took on its modern meaning due to confusion over the word’s first syllable.

War Machines in History factsShutterstock

22. Cat-Scratch

Though many medieval siege engines were primarily improvements on older inventions, some original machines were developed during the era. The Cat and the Weasel were big and small versions of a structure that would be built or pushed up against a defender’s fortifications. They possessed a large claw or spike to gouge through the enemy's walls—like a cat scratching against it.

War Machines in History factsShutterstock

21. Once More Unto the Breach

Advances in medieval European siege weaponry affected the design of forts. Concentric castles became common, with an outer wall to protect the inner wall from being breached by machines.

War Machines in History factsFlickr, Arian Zwegers

20. Rising Stars

As gunpowder caught on in Europe and cannons became a popular means of both defence and offence, the design of castle walls again changed. Star-shaped fortresses reached their peak in the 17th century, and allowed the defenders’ gunfire to cross paths and overwhelm attackers from multiple angles.

War Machines in History factsPixabay

19. Jack of All Trades

Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci could count "war machine inventor" on his long list of accomplishments. Among his designs were a type of tank with wheels powered by men turning cranks, and a machine piece with three rows of guns lined up so that you could simultaneously fire one row, let one cool, and reload the third. Da Vinci’s designs were never built, and it’s doubtful how effective they would have been.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

18. Blast From the Past

Japan was introduced to gunpowder by Portuguese traders in the 16th century and quickly adopted the use of arms . However, in the 17th century, Japan’s new leaders banned the use of arms as part of an effort to preserve the traditional feudal system. Japanese conflict remained essentially medieval until the 19th century.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

17. We All Live in a Yellow Submersible

The first submersible to be used in combat was the Turtle, a one-man, hand-powered, wooden craft used in the Revolutionary Conflict. It never successfully completed a mission, but it was used in an attempt to attach an explosive to the hull of a British ship.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

16. A Taste of Things to Come

Many technological advancements made during the American Civil Conflict helped set the stage for 20th-century conflict. These included "repeaters" (rifles that could fire seven shots before reloading), iron-clad warships instead of wooden ones, air reconnaissance (with balloons), and even an early, hand-cranked machine piece.

War Machines in History factsShutterstock

15. It’s All Inside

In 1884, Hiram Stevens Maxim invented a machine piece that used the gas released by a shot to power the mechanism that reloaded its chamber, so that it required no outside energy source. Machine guns to this day operate on the same principle.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

14. Quiet, Please!

Hiram Percy Maxim, the son of Hiram Stevens Maxim, invented the piece silencer in the early 1900s, along with the car muffler. I guess one kinda leads to the other?

War Machines in History factsShutterstock

13. Making Do with What They Had

During WWI, before cooling technology was perfected, water-cooled machine guns would overheat in only a few minutes. Since they required a lot of water to cool, gunners were known to urinate on their guns in a pinch.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

12. In Sync

One of the major innovations in machine piece technology in WWI was the interruptor, which allowed airplane-mounted machine guns to synchronize with the plane’s propellor blades and shoot through the gaps, meaning the pilots could aim their guns far more effectively. 

War Machines in History factsWikipedia

11. A Ruthless Weapon

The first modern flamethrowers were developed by the Germans in WWI. They were especially useful for the grim task of ending enemies in captured bunkers without damaging the surrounding structure.

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10. Built Like a Tank

The British introduced tanks during WWI, in the Battle of the Somme. They proved to be nearly invincible to the Germans’ withering machine piece fire, and thanks to brand-new automotive technology, they could drive through terrain that was too dangerous for infantry.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

9. Well, It’s a Start

The first airplane drone bomber was tested by the Allies in WWI. The aircraft was unmanned, and couldn’t be steered; operators could only point it in the right direction as it took off and hope that it reached its target. Unsurprisingly, these drones never really took off with the army. Get it? Took off? Like a plane... takes off...

War Machines in History factsNational Museum of the U.S. Air Force

8. Tipping the Balance

Though primitive submarines had existed for some time, WWI was the first time they played an important role in a conflict. In 1915, a German U-boat’s sinking of the RMS Lusitania, a civilian ocean liner, was one of the causes that brought America into the conflict.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

7. A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

Submarines became even more important in the Second World W. One key improvement to German U-boats was the use of the Enigma machine, an extremely complicated electronic coding machine—with Enigma, the U-boats could coordinate surprise "wolf-pack" attacks. A team of Allied computer scientists led by Alan Turing eventually managed to build a machine that could decode Enigma messages—their device is known today as one of the first ever computers. The Allies' ability to decode Enigma is said to have turned the tide of the conflict.

War Machines in History factsWikimedia Commons

6. From Hero to Zero

Airplane technology developed so quickly during WWII that the very best planes in 1939 were comically outclassed by the fighters of 1945. One plane, the Japanese Zero, went from being known as "invincible" in 1941 to being a "turkey" in 1944.

War Machines in History factsWikipedia

5. Science Wars

Many great German scientists, including 19 Nobel laureates, fled to the Allies in WWII. They contributed to many technological advancements, including working on the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic explosives. As Winston Churchill said, “The Allies won the conflict because our German scientists were better than their German scientists".

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, atomic physicist and head of the Manhattan ProjectNational Archives at College Park, Wikimedia Commons

4. Mom's Secret Recipe

Though sometimes attributed to Archimedes, Greek Fire was most likely first introduced by the medieval Byzantine Empire. It was a liquid fire, similar to napalm, whose recipe was a closely-guarded secret. It was generally sprayed from tubes mounted on ships, and it was once used to wipe out Muslim fleet of 30,000 army men.

War Machines in History factsWikipedia

3. Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

The Romans are famous for their engineering, and they were excellent at improving on the inventions of others. For example, Alexander the Great and his successors had used siege towers that were difficult to move and not very well-armed. The Romans added more artillery, room for more fighters, boarding platforms, and made the towers more manoeuvrable. Julius Caesar used one that was ten stories high.

Druids FactsFlickr,Michael Coghlan

2. Don't Call Them Dumbo

Carthage, a North African state that fought a series of wars against Rome, terrified the Roman armies with its conflict elephants. Okay, they’re not technically a machine, but these elephants were like tanks: they wore armor on their front and flanks, they had spears attached to their trunks, and they could crash straight through enemy lines.

The Persian Empire also used elephants for battle, and the use of conflict elephants even affected the campaigns of Alexander the Great. At Alexander's Battle of Gaugamela, the Persians used no less than 15 elephants. The towering beasts made such an impression on the Macedonian conqueror's army, Alexander was compelled to make a sacrifice to the God of Fear before the battle. When you've scared Alexander the Great, you know you're doing something right.

Animals In Warfare FactsShutterstock

1. Take Two and Call Me in the Morning

When gunpowder was first invented in China, in the 9th century AD, it was used as a medicine called "fire potion". It wasn’t until the 11th century that they started to find army applications for it.

Accidental Discoveries FactsShutterstock


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37


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