The Right Stuff


March 27, 1994|By Dave Barry

Today we have a heartwarming human-interest story about some guys in Texas who are fulfilling a dream. These guys are building a device that will be capable of hurling a Buick 200 yards.

Needless to say, the origin of this idea involved beer. A lot of great ideas originated this way. Take the electric light. One night in 1879 at a bar in a town called Menlo Park, N.J., some men were drinking beer, when suddenly one of them announced that he was going to invent an electric light. The others laughed, but that man got up, put on his coat, and accidentally walked into the fireplace, thereby setting his coat on fire. This gave Thomas Edison, who was at another table drinking coffee, the idea of using carbonized cotton as the filament in his light bulb.

So we see that beer, if used correctly, can be a tremendous force for good, which brings us back to the Buick-hurling device, which I found out about thanks to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article written by Paul Bourgeois and sent in by alert reader Robert Grimm. The beer consumers in this case were Richard Clifford, an engineer and artist; and John Quincy, a dentist. One day they were snorking brewskis, and got to talking about medieval war weapons.

As you recall from dozing off in your history textbook, medieval cities were surrounded by high stone walls with massive iron gates that would not open unless you punched in the secret digital Roman-numeral passcode. Thus the only way that an invading army could get inside was to knock holes in the wall by hurling large objects at it. Originally catapults were used for this, but they were eventually replaced by a more-powerful device, called a "trebuchet." It's basically a long arm with a big weight attached to one end; the weight is raised, then dropped, which whips up the other end of the arm, causing it to fling the projectile.

According to an article in the January issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine (alertly sent in by reader Bob Goetze), some trebuchets could throw 300-pound boulders as far as 300 yards. They also were used to throw dead horses. The idea was to spread disease. This would be a real morale-breaker:

Husband: Hi honey! I'm home from my medieval job in the field of crossbow sales! What's for dinner?

Wife: Your favorite! A nice big mutton ...

(A dead horse comes crashing through the ceiling, spewing maggots everywhere.)

Husband: Actually, I'm not hungry.

Yes, the trebuchet was an awesome weapon, and the more Richard Clifford and John Quincy thought about it, the more they realized that they had to build one. And so they did. They used it to try to hurl a brick. It was not a major success.

"We never knew which way the brick was gonna go," Quincy told me, in a phone interview.

At this point, most guys would have quit. But Clifford and Quincy are not "most guys." And so they did some serious trebuchet research. They read books on military history. Then they went to England to consult with the world's leading trebuchet expert, a historian named Hew Kennedy. He has built a large working trebuchet at his home in Shropshire, and he regularly invites his neighbors over to watch him hurl stuff across the fields. According to Mechanical Engineering, he has hurled small cars, dead pigs and grand pianos.

Clifford and Quincy returned home inspired. They printed up some official stationery (It says PROJECTILE THROWING ENGINES, Texas Division: "Hurling Into the 21st Century"). They hooked up with a welder, Don Capers, and together they developed and built an improved trebuchet, for test purposes. They've been using it to hurl bowling balls.

"We're throwing bowling balls now somewhere between 400 and 500 feet," he said.

But that is small potatoes. What they plan to do is build the biggest trebuchet in the history of the world. The one that will hurl the Buick.

Here is how serious they are: When I spoke with Quincy, he had just purchased 80 acres of land adjacent to his property just so the Buick will have some place to land.

"Wherever it lands," said Quincy, "it's going to stay there."

Quincy said they'll use The Big One to raise money for charity by holding several major hurlings per year. And we're not talking just Buicks. Quincy sent me a ballistics chart listing detailed technical data on the hurling characteristics of among other items a toilet, a case of Spam, a recliner, an Airstream trailer, a cow, and a mime ("silent, night hurling," notes the chart).

I don't know about you, but, as a journalist and as an American, I am really excited about this. I'm going to keep you readers informed. I'm going to stick to this story the way Connie Chung stuck to Tonya Harding. And, yes, I intend to be there when the Buick goes up. When it does, I know that I'm going to have a very special feeling inside me. It will go away when I burp.


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