It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Case of Spam!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Video clips of "Thor" in action, from the International Hurling Society

Outside magazine, August 1995

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Case of Spam!

In Texas they're chucking commodes, Buicks, and a frightening amount of mystery meat. It's a medieval rain of mayhem. Ice down the beer.
By Paul Kvinta

"Imagine the terror," says Richard Clifford, slouching behind a desk cluttered with parabolic graphs, mathematical equations, and books with titles like The Art of War in the Middle Ages and Great Sieges in History. "You're sitting in a castle when 50,000 guys roll up and start building one of these machines. Then they start hurling boulders and fire and cattle at you. The heads of your own men flying over the castle walls!"

Clifford is hamming it up about a catapult called a trebuchet, the most powerful of medieval siege weapons. A tall, lumbering, 50-year-old engineer and sculptor from Fort Worth, Texas, he shakes his mostly bald head at the thought of these ancient horrors--yet his eyes widen gleefully as he mulls each detail. "They knew decomposing flesh caused disease," he continues, "so it was a kind of early germ warfare. But mostly they did it to terrorize."

He pauses, reconsidering. "Actually, they threw pieces of cows. Their trebuchets wouldn't have been big enough for entire cows. Now ours," he grins, "will be able to throw cattle. Cattle, pigs, chickens. Whatever you want."

Clifford is only kidding about chucking animals, but he's plenty serious about using catapults to lob objects as far as possible. He and his partner, a deep-pocketed 46-year-old Fort Worth dentist named John Quincy, are building Thor, a 100-foot-tall trebuchet due for completion this fall. With obvious pride, Clifford promises that it will be "the biggest siege weapon ever built in the history of the world."

A noble goal, to be sure, but it's one that requires trial-and-error work on a smaller model, because, as Clifford readily admits, a surprising number of bugs crop up when you design a trebuchet: "The physics is a lot more complicated than I thought." Hence, until work on Thor is completed, Clifford and Quincy are launching projectiles from their test trebuchet, Baby Thor, a 25-foot-tall catapult that sits in the rolling pastures just west of Fort Worth. There, where longhorn cattle usually graze, the men have hurled 16-pound bowling balls for distances longer than a football field. They have launched kitchen sinks into dazzling pink sunsets. They've flung cases of Spam.

Clifford and Quincy don't pretend that their hurling has much social value, but they do have a quest, one that's both simple and grandiosely Texan: to exercise the purest principles of physics using an arguably absurd, definitely ten-gallon gadget. When asked, Clifford can serve up inspired chatter about the project's loftier motives--about tapping the preindustrial genius of the ancient engineers--but it's Quincy, a hefty man who sports a bushy mustache and a cowboy hat, who offers a more convincing reason. Mostly, he says, he wants Thor to exist so he can build a clubhouse next to it, sit in air-conditioned luxury, and quaff cold Budweisers as he watches the big guy do its thing.

"It makes about as much sense as chasing a golf ball," shrugs Quincy, who's covering most of the project's $50,000 cost.

The Thor project comes at a time when America's interest in hurling is at least chirping, if not roaring. Last fall, 20,000 people showed up in Lewes, Delaware, to watch 23 hurling devices launch pumpkins at the eighth annual Punkin' Chunkin' contest. Clifford and Quincy, meanwhile, are collaborating with five universities, including the U.S. Military Academy, where various physics and engineering classes are building catapults as assignments. Crews from CNN and Good Morning America have pilgrimaged to Quincy's ranch to witness the team's well-attended throws. Harnessing this interest, the Thor Project (which includes not just Clifford and Quincy, but Quincy's wife, Karan, and several retired engineers) founded the International Hurling Society in 1993. According to its newsletter, HEAVE, the organization is "dedicated to the art, science, and history of throwing things." With a circulation of about 500, HEAVE features articles on physics and medieval history alongside gag tips on "hurling armadillos."

Looming on the horizon is "the big one," Thor, which will tower over the Texas prairie like an oil derrick. A powerful combination of Zeus and David Letterman, Thor will throw huge projectiles down a 60-by-1,200-foot firing range. By late fall, tractor-trailer rigs will transport its steel-girder framework to Quincy's property, where a crane operator will begin assembly. Once Thor is up, the team plans to embellish it with ropes, banners, and creeping vines for medieval tang. The first super hurl is slated for December.

"I've done the math," Clifford says excitedly, looking up from his papery desk to put Thor's magnificence in modern terms. "We'll be able to throw a 1962 Buick about a thousand feet."

The day before a big Saturday afternoon hurling, I meet Clifford in downtown Fort Worth for lunch and some projectile-gathering. Today's pickings are easy. Marelen Burgett, Quincy's receptionist and the editor of HEAVE, is remodeling her bathrooms, and she's disposing of two toilets, one of which is in nearly mint condition. "Hey, this one's nice," says Clifford as he fingers the black bobber and chain.

Together we hoist the 65-pound beauty into the bed of his blue-and-white Chevy pickup and head for Quincy's place. Twelve miles outside Fort Worth, his property sits at the end of a winding, unpaved road, where weathered barbed-wire fences separate neighboring spreads. Just inside the ranch's entrance gate stands Baby Thor. A strange-looking assemblage of two large steel A-frames on a base of wooden planks, it supports a single steel beam that rests on an eight-foot-tall fulcrum. Uncocked, the harmless weapon lays siege to a field of mowed weeds and prickly pears.

As we approach, Quincy is crouched behind Baby Thor, jawing with a welder. He stands and extends a hearty Chamber of Commerce handshake. "So," he says, eyeballing the weapon, "whadya think?"

Unlike Alexander the Great's famed catapults, which functioned like jumbo crossbows, the trebuchet is a lever. On one end is a very heavy counterweight. On the other is the lighter payload, which is locked in place until the kinetic moment when the trigger is pulled. At that instant, Baby Thor is like a giant seesaw with a sumo wrestler on one end and a flyweight gymnast on the other. The principle is simplicity itself: The wrestler drops suddenly, and the gymnast sails across the playground.

In place of the sumo, Baby Thor has a 2,200-pound counterweight permanently attached to one end of its throwing arm. On the other end, a projectile is loaded into a detachable sling. To cock and load the weapon, the hurlers tie a cable to the lighter end, winch it down, and secure the arm with a trigger catch. Then they tie a projectile--an outboard motor, say--to the sling. When the trigger is yanked, the counterweight crashes down and whipsaws the arm, and the motor flies across the sky, the sling flapping behind. It is a jerky, unorthodox spectacle--imagine a praying mantis trying to do the shot put.

Big Thor will simply incorporate bigger versions of everything. Its 100-foot throwing arm will stand on a 42-foot-tall fulcrum. A U.S. Navy winch, used for opening tanker doors, will hoist a 55,000-pound counterweight. When this plunges, Thor should be able to launch a projectile weighing 3,000 pounds.

On this afternoon, the men lose themselves in prelaunch preparations. Clifford moves about, making adjustments; like a golf pro sizing up a long-iron shot, he often peers downfield at two plywood targets 400 feet away. Quincy, gearing up for his role as master of ceremonies tomorrow, escorts me across the freshly trimmed firing range to collect a stray bowling ball.

If a good partner is someone who fills in your gaps, Quincy and Clifford are well matched: Quincy's attentive glad-handing is a nice complement to Clifford's mad-scientist obsession with details. Quincy flew planes for the air force in the early seventies before switching to dentistry and building up a lucrative practice that has allowed him to indulge in big-guy amusements like hot-air ballooning and catapults. Before arriving in Fort Worth, Clifford worked as a museum curator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs outside Newkirk, Oklahoma, wrote books on topics ranging from antiques to horse racing, and produced a line of handmade textured papers that have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A few years back, the men met at a party and quickly discovered a shared interest in oddball hobbies. The idea to build a trebuchet came up two years ago, when Quincy read a newspaper story about Hew Kennedy, an eccentric British lord who is considered the father of modern catapulting. Kennedy has built a 65-foot trebuchet with a six-ton counterweight; he also built a 45-footer for an episode of the TV series Northern Exposure in which an artist hurls a piano.

"After reading that," Clifford recalls, "John said out of the blue one day, 'Let's build a trebuchet.'" Impulsively, the guys flew to England to ask Kennedy for expert advice. He put them up for a night in a huge manor house on his estate 150 miles north of London. "The place had secret passages and trap doors," Quincy says. "It was really weird. The next day about two dozen people showed up wearing ascots and fine clothes, and Hew hurled a piano for them. They all clapped politely, climbed into their Rolls Royces, and drove home."

Unfortunately, Kennedy provided little concrete information about catapult design, claiming that he keeps no notes and works strictly by trial and error. So Clifford had to figure it out for himself. "Of course," he says with a smile, "we decided we had to build a bigger one."

"OK, let's fire a couple of practice rounds," Quincy announces. It's two tinkering-filled hours later, and a couple more members of the team have arrived: Karan Quincy and Ted Calinson, a grandfatherly 76-year-old retired ordnance engineer. The group surveys the stash of projectiles assembled for tomorrow's hurl. There's a 75-pound cash register, the two toilets, and half a dozen bowling balls. These objects sit next to something truly sinister: Baby Thor's torture-chamber-inspired triggering mechanism, which consists of a mounted crossbow, a miniature spring-loaded catapult, a guillotine, and a catch rope. Together, these weapons create a Rube Goldberg sequence that works like so: The crossbow fires a pipe that strikes a garbage can lid. This activates the mini-catapult, which launches a softball that drops the guillotine that slices the rope that fires Baby Thor.

Quincy selects a 16-pound bowling ball, and the team swings into action. Clifford winches the throwing arm. Karan attaches and loads the sling. Quincy gingerly connects the trigger mechanism to the arm, and Ted lifts the guillotine blade. Finally, Quincy tiptoes to the crossbow, and everyone steps back.

After the triggering sequence is complete, Baby Thor wobbles and then suddenly unleashes its mighty arm. The bowling ball momentarily disappears in a blur before we see it slicing a magnificent arc across the sky. It lands with a thud about 30 feet shy of the targets--a disappointing 370-foot effort that causes the team to murmur. After some head-scratching and a conference, Clifford adjusts the release hook at the end of the arm and loads another bowling ball.

This time the ball sails a bit farther, and you begin to understand how a trebuchet twice the size of Baby Thor would have made armored knees clank in the Middle Ages. Feudal armies typically bombed one another with mules, red-hot irons, and casks of Greek fire--a primitive form of napalm made of sulfur, pitch, nitre, and petroleum that was impossible to extinguish with water. Sometimes they hurled men. In a chapter on European sieges in his translation of The Travels of Marco Polo, the historian Henry Yule tells of a messenger who was captured outside the Castle of Auberoche, in northern France: "Caught by the besiegers, [he was] thrust into the sling with the letters that he bore hung around his neck, and shot into Auberoche, where he fell dead among his horrified comrades."

Late in the afternoon, Quincy provides a tour of his property and explains his more user-friendly vision. We push through brush toward the whine of chainsaws. In a small clearing, three sweaty workers are hacking down small trees. "This," Quincy proclaims, "will be the firing range for Big Thor." He points left. "That's where we'll have the clubhouse. You'll have a great view of the hurlings from there. We'll serve drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Kind of a Van Cliburn type deal, with a guy out here playing the piano. Then we'll hurl the piano."

Shortly we return to Baby Thor, where a concern has emerged. The bowling balls are falling short of their mark again. Why? "We had been throwing well beyond the targets," maintains Ted Calinson. Theories are floated, with Calinson quietly fretting that Baby Thor's arm could be warping. "It may have been that 56-pound commode we threw a while back," he suggests. He whips out a pad and sketches a quick diagram to make his point. Then he shuffles 25 yards away from the site, crouches on the ground, and squints hard through Coke-bottle glasses."Yep," he says, "it's bowed to the left a little."

Bad news, particularly since the team expects 20 to 30 spectators tomorrow. As the sun drops, the question arises. Will a toilet be hurled? "Not the way Ted's talking," Quincy concedes. "Uh-uh. Not the heavy one, anyway."

A cool breeze kicks up the morning of the hurling, and the sky is overcast. I meet Quincy walking toward the site with Gerald McCurdy, 70, a retired missile engineer who has analyzed Baby Thor with high-speed photography. He is a thin man with the stern look of a boarding school headmaster, and he has a theory about the subpar chucks. "McCurdy figures," says Quincy, "that with significantly reduced friction we could be throwing twice as far as what we're doing."

"Ball bearings," McCurdy pipes up. "Thor will need a bearing system." With that he pulls out his camera and moves on as a column of cars pours through the front gate. Five kids wearing letter jackets and baseball caps climb out and straggle toward Baby Thor. It's a high school physics class from Fort Worth Country Day School. Soon, as friends of Clifford and Quincy arrive, the crowd swells to about 25.

After everyone has settled in around the trebuchet, Quincy starts his spiel about cattle and Buicks. The students giggle and roll their eyes. "Of course, we haven't calculated for the effects of tidal drag, atmospheric breakup, or the Coriolis effect," Quincy tells the kids, "so anything could happen." No one laughs. Tough crowd. "OK," he concedes, "why don't we just fire a bowling ball."

At that, the students pull out digital stopwatches. "Our teacher wants us to clock the hang time," a girl named Dana says matter-of-factly. The catapult team does its thing. Quincy fires the crossbow. Baby Thor lurches. The students stop chewing their gum, and a 16-pounder sails across the clouds, once again falling short of its target.

"I got 4.6," Dana blurts out.

"Average your hang times and record them," instructs Mr. Biehle, their teacher, a bookish fellow with small, round spectacles.

The group huddles, with one boy scribbling on a tablet. "Four point eight for the average," Dana reports. "Do it again!" she demands of the hurlers.

"We're just getting to projectiles in class, so this is a real-world application," Mr. Biehle comments. "If you call this the real world."

The second ball goes farther but falls short of the targets by ten feet. A throng of parents and children scamper across the pockmarked range to retrieve the balls. Then, like Texas brush fire, word spreads that the hurlers are ready to fire a commode. With confident abandon, Quincy is tying the smaller of the two toilets onto the sling with a piece of old rope. Clifford begins winching down the arm, and a hush of anticipation falls over the crowd.

"I hope it breaks into a million pieces," says one woman. "Karan won't let them put an incendiary device in it. If you do that you have to have the fire department here."

At the launch site, Quincy bellows a countdown: "Five, four, three, two..."

In an instant come the noisy clangs of the firing sequence, and the counterweight drops. As the arm jolts into motion, a shocking thing occurs. Before reaching the top of its arc, the toilet flies wildly off the sling, arches backward, and disappears behind the trees. We all rush to the crash-landing spot, breaking through a line of bushes to reach an unpaved road that fronts Quincy's property. Quincy is already there, shaking his head at debris that is strewn across the road.

"The rope broke," he explains. "We should have used wire."

Back at the site, a postmortem is in full swing. "Oh, hell no, it wasn't a failure," Clifford is arguing. "Now we know what happens when the rope breaks."

"You learn something every throw," McCurdy adds, nodding his support.

"When you impact-load something like that and whip it around through all those g's," Calinson hypothesizes, "the acceleration is just too much for an old piece of rope."

The crowd ambles off to the house for coffee and cake. Quincy is left sitting on Baby Thor's counterweight, surrounded by kids. In the distance, chainsaws roar--the sound of Big Thor being born. The kids have small pieces of commode in their hands, and Quincy is signing each one carefully with a red felt-tip pen. "My first autographs," he says, beaming. "Why not?"

Paul Kvinta is a frequent contributor to Outside. His "What Are You Whining About?" appeared in the June issue.

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