Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2395
THE WORLD'S WORST WEAPONS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the world's worst weapons. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've been reading Martin Dougherty's small coffee table book, The World's Worst Weapons. Well, less reading than looking at all the pictures and extended captions: He displays a hundred and fifty or so tanks, guns, ships, rockets, and more -- all weapons that once flowered in someone's mind, then stumbled in execution.

Some are flat out nutty: The barrel of the German Krummlauf rifle was bent 45 degrees so it could shoot around corners. It had to be aimed through a periscope. Two hundred years ago, the French tried to make a flintlock pistol with a fold-out bayonet. A century later, we tried to make a pistol and bayonet that folded up into a set of brass knuckles -- three weapons in one. The WW-II Komet -- a German rocket-powered fighter -- killed more of its own pilots than enemies. And its range was a scant 22 miles.

But I'm fascinated with all the dubious weapons we've thought were magic bullets against an enemy. The Ninja throwing star is lethal in martial arts movies. In real life, they can't be thrown straight and they do little damage if they actually hit someone.

Or take our having gone to war over the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898. The Maine was a not-yet-fully-evolved, battleship. It didn't yet have rotating turrets staggered along its centerline, and was still set up to fire 19th-century broadsides. It was a dicey experiment when it was launched nine years earlier.

Then it blew up in Havana Harbor. We blamed a Spanish mine, and we went to war. The cause was a powder magazine explosion, probably the result of a fire in the coal bunker -- or maybe a mine really was to blame. Either way, poor design played a part in the death of what was little more than an American status symbol.

When I was schoolboy, the German Tiger Tank was the symbol of Hitler's frightening invincibility. Designed for maximum firepower and armor, it was dangerous in open terrain. Yet, despite its fearsome reputation, it was a plodding gas guzzler. It caved in bridges and it suffered far too many mechanical failures.

Late in WW-II, America came up with an equally famous anti-tank weapon -- the Bazooka. We read about it in Life magazine and were all filled with hope. Yet it's also here in Daugherty's book. Bazookas were simple rocket launchers, forerunners of the now-familiar RPGs. They weren't accurate and a large back-blast gave away their positions. Their missiles often bounced off German tanks and were little use against Japanese pillboxes. Worse yet, Germany came right back at us with a much improved version. Still, Eisenhower called it "one of the four weapons that won the war."

Well, we can quibble over Daugherty's selection, but the point is clear. The winds of war buffet invention. Bad ideas get rushed into production, while good ones are ignored. And production moves faster than good sense in wartime. For that reason, this book could well've been made much, much longer than it actually is.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


M. J. Daugherty, The World's Worst Weapons. (New York, Metro Books, 2007).

See also the Wikipedia articles on Shuriken (or throwing stars), the Messerschmitt 163 Komet, the USS Maine, the German Tiger Tanks, and the American Bazooka.

For more on the way war and invention work, see Episode No. 1562.

World's Worst Weapons
 USS Maine


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.