Chapter 47: 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.