Archimedes burning ships with mirrors


Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
I did a search and some sources said it might not be true. However, why should some 12th century source quoting an earlier source make it up? Maybe he had like 2,000 soldiers pointing bronze mirrors at the same point. We don't know how well it worked. Syracuse did fall. Why did no one try that later on?
Oct 2013
Planet Nine, Oregon
Hard to imagine it working properly back then. Iirc, a Mythbusters attempt failed, too. It seems like it would be possible to construct some kind of device with bronze mirrors, but I don't know if they are reflective enough. Would be almost impossible to get folks positioned right, etc. Can't see it working at a distance far enough to light up a ship.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2015
Could be used to blind the people on the ship well enough. Will never burn one in a million years though. Optics is hard, you can't just point some roughly hammered bronze mirrors and expect miracles.
Source: I have masters in optics and spent longer than I would have liked in an optics lab
Nice. Somehow people have the idea that you can go star wars with light.

Plus of course the target is moving, so a lens is also not really an option.
Likes: macon


Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
I believe the Greek navy did a test many years ago and set fire to a small wooden vessel. The thing was, the vessel was obligingly stationary for the duration of the test and the bronze mirrors were far better made than those in Archimedes time. The conclusion was that while it was theoretically possible it would not have worked in practice.
Feb 2011
Livy tells us that the Romans eventually became very nervous of anything they saw happening upon the walls, often aborting action upon noting any unusual activity.
This 'smoke and mirrors' trick would seem an ideal way to frighten them off.
Aug 2014
Mythbusters debunked it three times. They tried bronze mirrors and modern mirrors. In the last experiment, Jamie stood on the ship, which was close enough for him to throw tennis balls at the mirror-holders. He said the light distracted him but had no permanent effect on his vision, even with modern mirrors.
MythBusters Episode 157: President’s Challenge
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Likes: sparky
Jan 2015
Yeah, I've seen an experiment in which they did get some smoldering from their target, even though the sky was not completely clear. BUT I believe it was done with modern mirrors, and of course the "ship" was stationary.

HOWEVER--I think we should solidly stomp on the silly idea of "roughly hammered" bronze mirrors! They were perfectly capable of making very smooth surfaces polished to a mirror finish, and mirrors were common items. Armor and shields were smooth and polished, too. NO, they will NOT be as perfect nor reflective as modern mirrors, and you certainly couldn't use shields for mirrors because they are convex, exactly the wrong shape for something like this. If the idea didn't work, it was not because these guys were cavemen banging rocks together.

I've always found it curious that the story got started in the first place--how could something like that get made up out of whole cloth? But shooting flaming missiles was hardly a new concept at that time, and we know it was far more effective than mirrors and sunlight even on a good day. Wacky.


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