Ancient Greek and Roman historians recorded that during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, Archimedes (a notably smart person) constructed a burning glass to set the Roman warships, anchored within bow and arrow range, afire. The story has been much debated and oft dismissed as myth.
TV’s MythBusters were not able to replicate the feat and “busted” the myth.
Intrigued by the idea and an intuitive belief that it could work, MIT’s 2.009ers decided to apply the early product development ‘sketch or soft modeling’ process to the problem.
Our goal was not to make a decision on the myth—we just wanted to assess if it was at least possible, and have some fun in the process. Jumping ahead, you can see the result… but let’s start at the beginning of the process.
When a new idea pops into one’s head it’s good to do a quick feasibility estimate. The course instructor’s quick “back of the envelope” calculation (done while pondering the MythBuster result) indicated that it could be possible (assuming that the wood is not reflective).
When the 2.009 class was given a 5 minute challenge to assess technical feasibility, about 95% (of 80 students) deemed the death ray infeasible. In a democracy this would probably doom the idea. However, since ‘the bosses’ thought it might work, further exploration and sketch model tests to learn more were merited.
Although many of the images of the death ray depict Archimedes with a parabolic mirror, it seemed like a bunch of individual flat mirrors positioned by ‘the troops’ would be a fast, more practical implementation of the concept.