Naplam, Tanks and Death Rays — History’s First Attempts at Modern-Day Weaponry

Tanks, bombers, battleships and even beam weapons were all tried decades, even centuries, before the modern era.

“A number of innovators throughout history who developed early versions of some of today’s more revolutionary fighting machines.”

JAN ZIZKA, a 15th century Czech military leader who led a rebellion against the powerful Catholic Church, was a brilliant commander in spite of being totally blind. Even with this considerable handicap, Zizka did have the vision to foresee the invention of the tank 500 years before the advent of modern armoured warfare. As reported previously on this very blog, as far back as the 1420s, Zizka came up with the idea of mounting archers, arquebuses and even cannons on armoured horse-drawn carts and rolling them into battle. He called his contraptions “wagon forts.” [1]

A Medieval tank? One of Jan Zizka’s “wagon forts” in action. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Zizka wasn’t the only one from the distant pass to envision the weapons systems of modern times. A number of innovators throughout history who developed early versions of some of today’s more revolutionary fighting machines. Here are a few of these remarkable inventions.

Bombers over Vienna. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Bombs Away

History records the first air delivered bomb was dropped from an Italian Etrich Taube monoplane onto Turkish positions in Libya during the 1911 to 1912 war between those two countries. [2] It happened on Nov. 1, 1911 when a flier by the name of Giulio Gavotti brought his rickety plane in low and engaged Ottoman ground forces near a strategic oasis using a pistol and 4 lb. bombs thrown by hand. [3] The war also saw what is often reported as the first use of blimps as bombers. Amazingly, explosives were actually first dropped from above the earth decades before both the advent of the blimp and the airplane. In 1849, Austrian troops besieging Venice experimented with delivering bombs onto the city’s defenders from balloons. [4] The plan, which was conceived by an Austrian artillery officer, involved unmanned balloons laden with 30-lb. bombs being floated over the city’s defences. Fuses would be set to release the bombs when they were above the target area. By July 15, 1849 the Austrians assembled a flotilla of balloons and tethered them to a warship upwind from the city. When the breeze was just right, the attackers loosed the balloons, which were taken by the wind and carried aloft. Unfortunately for the Austrians, the wind proved a little stronger than expected – the balloons drifted past the city and released their deadly payload right onto the Austrian lines. [5]

The Byzantine’s pioneered the flamethrower 1200 years before World War One.


Like poison gas, submarines or light machine guns, the flame thrower is often cited as just one more fearsome modern weapon that made its combat debut in the First World War. To be sure, the concept of outfitting a lone foot soldier with portable containers of flammable fuel, a propelling agent and a hose-like attachment that ignites the mixture and projects it towards an enemy was first deployed in battle in 1915. Surprisingly, the Germany army’s flammenwerfer was not the first weapon in history that projected fire in such a manner. As far back as the 7th Century, fighting ships of the Byzantine Empire were using a simple hand pump system to squirt a flaming liquid known as Greek fire onto enemy vessels. While the ingredients of this volatile mixture have been lost to history (the exact recipe was a closely guarded secret), it was likely some sort of oil or sulfur based fluid, possibly even pine resin. [6] One thing we are certain of though it that once lit, the solution could not be extinguished with by water. As a result, Greek fire struck fear into the hearts of Byzantine’s enemies. [7] The Chinese also dabbled in something like Greek fire in the 10th and 11th centuries after possibly learning the secret through contact with Arab traders. [8] Chinese armies used the weapon on land against Mongol invaders in the early 900s as well as on the water during a battle in the 970s between two warring factions known as the Songs and the Tangs.

A 16th century Korean ‘ironclad’ turtle ship.

The First Ironclad

The Battle of Hampton Roads supposedly represents the ironclad warship’s baptism of fire. Over two days in March 1862, the Confederate ironclad the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) and the Union warship USS Monitor slugged it out (sometimes at point blank range). Despite the fact that militarily the battle was inconclusive, the encounter itself was considered a game changer as far as the world’s navies were concerned – the age of sail was over; the era of the battleship was beginning. [10] But despite the enduring interest in this historic engagement, it’s often forgotten that the earliest ironclad warships weren’t American at all – they were Korean. And amazingly enough, they were conceived in the 16th century — nearly 300 years before the U.S. Civil War. Known as turtle ships, the vessels were essentially enormous armoured barges that were virtually indestructible. The brainchild of an admiral in the Korean navy of the Joseon Dynasty by the name of Yi Sun-sin, between 20 and 40 turtle ships were built in the 1590s and helped Korea thwart Japan’s plans to invade the peninsula. [11] The 100-foot-long hulks, which were powered by up to 80 oarsmen, were equipped with more than two dozen cannons. They were also designed to plow into enemy vessels using their enormous bow-mounted rams. A thick wooden upper deck festooned with iron spikes protected the crew from enemy fire and also served to repel boarding parties. Turtle ships, which were surprisingly fast and agile, would typically row into an enemy fleet ramming any ships in their path while blasting others with withering broadsides. They were used effectively in a number of battles like Dangpo, Sacheon and Noryang. [12]

Archimedes and his death ray in the 3rd Century BCE.

Set Your Phasers to ‘Sun’

Death rays today seem like the stuff of science fiction. Yet, such a weapon was supposedly pioneered in ancient times. According to contemporary accounts, during the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE, the Greek inventor Archimedes put his considerable genius to work helping to shore up the defences. One of his schemes involved placing giant parabolic mirrors at various points atop the city’s walls that could be used in concert to focus the sun’s ray’s onto a distant target (in this case, Roman warships). Other historians from later antiquity suggested that it wasn’t mirrors Archimedes was using but rather a ‘burning glass’ (a sort of large magnifying glass). [13] According to the story, the inventor’s beam weapon did set some of the invaders’ ships on fire. Over the years, a number of historians and scientists have tried to reproduce Archimedes’ death ray. Most recently, both the American television program Mythbusters and a group of students and faculty at MIT have attempted to replicate the heat ray. The latter were able to ignite a simulated wooden ship hull using the mirrors after some initial setbacks. [14] Archimedes also supposedly devised an enormous crane-like claw that could capsize or even lift and drop Roman ships, however many historians have doubted that such a contraption was ever built. [15] Super weapons or not, eventually the Romans managed to storm Syracuse. According to legend, the 78-year-old Archimedes was busy  toiling in his workshop when the Roman soldiers arrived at his residence. Mistaking them for Greeks, he chastised the soldiers for disturbing him, at which point they stabbed him to death.


Did you like this story? Please rate it below and let us know what you think. Comments are always welcome too. 
If you’d like to receive alerts about the latest articles and posts, click on the link in the upper right margin marked “FOLLOW THIS BLOG”. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter — @milhistnow






5. Ibid.




9. Ibid.




13. – Heat_ray



2 comments for “Naplam, Tanks and Death Rays — History’s First Attempts at Modern-Day Weaponry

  1. 28 September, 2012 at 9:26 am

Leave a Reply