Bridging The Gaps
There was a remarkable occurrence in the suburbs of Sheffield this morning, when local inventor Kevin Spout treated members of the media and public to the first trial of his latest invention in the engineering field. Spout’s supporters recently dubbed him Yorkshire’s answer to Leonardo da Vinci because he emulates that renowned Tuscan gentleman by embarking on a great number and range of ventures. His detractors retort that he also shares the Renaissance polymath’s tendency to leave jobs unfinished.
The result of Kevin’s current brainwave was displayed at a boating lake not far from his home. Before giving the demonstration, he explained what led to it. “I’ve always been good at lateral thinking,” he said. “For some years it has seemed to me that bridges are a colossal waste of materials and human resources. Just consider the miles of cable, the roadways and the vast amount of rock used for anchorages. It’s absurd. I was returning from a visit to the castle at Warwick, where I had seen the world’s largest trebuchet in action. As you probably know, these machines were used in medieval times as siege engines, usually to batter the walls of strongholds.
“When I conflated my two ideas concerning trebuchets and bridging gaps, I realised that the former could be adapted to deal with the latter, thus obviating a great deal of construction work. Clearly people need to go both ways when crossing stretches of water or chasms of whatever kind. Therefore, to avoid queuing, it is advisable to have two sets of apparatus, one for sending an object and one for receiving it, on each side. For today I have produced only one sender and one receiver. I now invite you to look at them.”
The sender was a huge trebuchet, built by members of the Spout family and modified for today’s purpose by Kevin himself. It stood a few yards from the lake’s edge, on the east side. The receiver was a long ramp, its high end about the same distance from the water on the west side. Kevin’s father, a garage mechanic, had fitted it with a braking system to ensure a safe and smooth descent for the propelled object. The two structures were about a hundred and fifty yards apart.
For those who know nothing of warfare in times gone by, a trebuchet can perhaps best visualised as a kind of gigantic catapult. A beam is fixed asymmetrically between two uprights, in such a way that its long end is nearly four times the length of the short one. A massive counterweight is attached to the short end, while the long one holds the weapon, or in this case the conveyance.
In order to enhance the force of projection, Kevin had fixed special tensioning cables to the beam, linking them with a mechanism of his own design. His plan was to release them in such a way that the counterweight would be yanked down and the opposite end of the beam whipped up. No details of the weight at either end of the beam, the degree of cable tautness or the concealed linking device were disclosed, as Kevin fears industrial espionage for copycat schemes.
With the traditional trebuchet, a missile, usually a very heavy rock, was fixed to the outer end of the beam’s longer section. For today’s experiment, instead of a weapon there was a capsule about six feet long, designed to allow two people to travel in tandem. Kevin has much bigger versions in mind for the future. On this occasion, the passenger seats were occupied by dummies. Several people had volunteered for the trip, but their offers were declined.
The operation began when Kevin, assisted by his cousin Donald, who had helped him with his recent work on a rocket, freed the cables from their restraining wires. As the counterweight dropped, the capsule soared. Unfortunately, instead of describing the expected graceful arc and touching down on the receiver, it executed unintended moves in all three aerial axes, lateral, longitudinal and vertical, pitching, rolling and yawing wildly. After turning base over apex twice, it plunged into the lake just short of the west shore and forty yards south of the receiver, destroying two rowing boats. While the capsule was making its brief journey, the trebuchet, overtaxed by the strain imposed upon it, collapsed.
A two-man recovery team, Kevin’s uncles, hauled the capsule from the water, and on inspecting the dummies found that both had been decapitated and had lost their arms and legs. When they were reassembled, it was noted that they bore no marks consistent with serious injury to human passengers. “Maybe they were just scared to bits,” was how one wag put it.
When asked to explain the mishap, Kevin said: “I must confess that, as in the case of my earlier experiment with a spacecraft, I gave my assistant Donald too much responsibility when I allowed him to position the receiver. He did not mention until a moment ago that he has a problem with macular pucker in his right eye. As anyone with this complaint will know, it causes apparent shifts in the locations of distant objects. This accounts for the receiver being in the wrong place. I was too busy to notice this when arranging the launch.
“The somewhat uncontrolled nature of the flight was caused by two factors. First, the extra energy induced by release of the restraining cables was not quite at the right level. Second, I decided late in the day that I would not equip the capsule with the pair of stubby wings I had constructed in order to maximise stability. Although I have learned a great deal from the test, I cannot regard it as a complete success. I shall fare much better with the second one.”
Before today’s incident, no engineering experts had publicly expressed opinions about the project. It emerged afterwards that the event had been attended by Jim Popadomescu of Bucharest, a specialist in trebuchets. He said that he could have predicted the outcome but that nobody had asked him to offer his views and he did not want to make unsolicited observations before the event. However, he made the retrospective suggestion that a more satisfactory result would have been achieved by use of his propulsion system. This is based on the plaiting together of rubber bands, which he buys by the crateful from his local stationer.
Madazine’s Axel Griess had viewed the proceedings. When he was located taking a stiff brandy in a pub near the lake, he said that he did not wish to add much to the high level of exposure likely to be given to the trial. He did disclose that immediately after the crash, Kevin had found a moment to ask him if he might be interested in booking a passage for the next outing. “I refused,” he said. “While I yield to no-one in my admiration of Kevin’s ingenuity, I prefer terra firma, on the ground that it provides more ‘firmer’ and less terror.”
A date for the next test has yet to be fixed.
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