Book Review: Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon by Jim Paul

One day Jim Paul decides that he wants to launch rocks into the ocean with a catapult and so he convinces his friend Harry to colloborate with him in building one, a process described in Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon (1991). Paul manages to convince National Park Service to allow him to use the catapult at the abandoned forts at the Marin Headlands and even gets a grant for $500 from the Headlands Center for the Arts. Naively, Paul believes that $500 will cover the entire project (and then some) and is surprised when he ends up sinking hundreds of dollars of his own money into the project.

Similarly, Paul knows next to nothing about constructing a catapult. Harry has all the technological knowledge and is pretty much solely responsible for its successful completion. On the other hand, the cranky Harry has none of the whimsy that Paul has in his desire to fling rocks for fun.

Early on, the reader learns from Harry that a true catapult is more of a large crossbow. The trebuchet or “Monty Python type” he deems too inefficient and likely to break down. So they build the crossbow type of catapult acquiring parts from a strange variety of shops in the seedier parts of Oakland and San Francisco that specialize in steel-working, salvage, and boating among other things. In intermediary chapters Paul visits the catapult in history from its (supposed) invention in Syracuse by Archimedes to the fall of Jerusalem, King Edward’s conquest of the Scots, and even more tangential connections such as the Oppenheimers and the atomic bomb.

Overall, I found the historical chapters more interesting than the story of the catapult’s construction and deployment. Paul just tries too hard to find humor in places where he was really pissing people off (especially Harry). Similarly, the whole project seems to end up being a whole lot of nothing up to and including the lecture they deliver which is an exercise in cringing to read. The highlight of the contemporary part of the book comes just before the lecture where Paul and Harry wander to the shore where there rocks landed and discover that it is a nude beach.  Some poetic passages and observations make for insightful reading, but this is pretty much a hit or miss book.

For another opinion, here’s a review from the New York Times from June 6, 1991 by Christopher Lehman-Haupt.

Favorite Passages

Looking for the beginning of the catapult in history, I found it attributed to Syracuse most authoritatively, but discovered it in other places as well, and I began wondering if I hadn’t gotten the terms wrong: not that history produced the catapult, but rather that the catapult produced history. Catapults made empires that kept records, and defended those empires so that it was more likely that such records might endure for posterity. Perhaps, too, later writers simply credited their ancestors with inventing the catapult to confer the prestige of the technology on their own cultures. In any case, old catapult stories appear in various places, usually with the historical implausibility and psychological cogency of myth. – p. 59