It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Case of Spam!
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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,”
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
“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
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,
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
“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
“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.