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16th-century manual shows 'rocket cat' weaponry


PHILADELPHIA (AP) - You're a 16th century German prince plotting to crush a peasant rebellion, or perhaps you're leading an army against the Ottoman Empire or looking to settle the score with a rival nobleman. What's a guy looking for a tactical edge to do?

Bring on the rocket cats!

Fanciful illustrations from a circa-1530 manual on artillery and siege warfare seem to show jet packs strapped to the backs of cats and doves, with the German-language text helpfully advising military commanders to use them to "set fire to a castle or city which you can't get at otherwise."

Digitized by the University of Pennsylvania, the unusual, full-color illustrations recently caught the attention of an Australian book blog and then found their way to Penn researcher Mitch Fraas, who set out to unravel the mystery.

"I really didn't know what to make of it," said Fraas, a historian and digital humanities expert at the Penn library. "It clearly looks like there's some sort of jet of fire coming out of a device strapped to these animals."

So were these unfortunate animals from the 1500s really wearing 20th-century technology?

Fraas' conclusion: No. Obviously.

The treatise in question was written by artillery master Franz Helm of Cologne, who was believed to have fought in several skirmishes against the Turks in south-central Europe at a time when gunpowder was changing warfare.

Circulated widely and illustrated by multiple artists, Helm's manual is filled with all sorts of strange and terrible imagery, from bombs packed with shrapnel to missile-like explosive devices studded with spikes - and those weaponized cats and birds.

According to Fraas' translation, Helm explained how animals could be used to deliver incendiary devices: "Create a small sack like a fire-arrow . if you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited."

In other words, capture a cat from enemy territory, attach a bomb to its back, light the fuse and then hope it runs back home and starts a raging fire.

Fraas said he could find no evidence that cats and birds were used in early modern warfare in the way prescribed by Helm.

A good thing, too.

"Sort of a harebrained scheme," Fraas said. "It seems like a really terrible idea, and very unlikely the animals would run back to where they came from. More likely they'd set your own camp on fire."

'Rocket Cat' Weaponry Plans Found In 16th-Century War Manual

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1000|Char. 1000  Char.
mduran5671 March 08 2014 at 6:48 PM

guess the cat was suppose to run to the enemy's camp and set on fire? ... or he'd turn arround and set the home camp on fire, maybe that's where the term "friendly fire" comes from.

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okhomejames March 08 2014 at 10:47 AM

As bizarre and in humane as it sounds, it not any less humane that warfare itself. I could see this being used via catapult to throw a flaming cat into a crowd of soldier's, all with their gunpowder bags open. Anyone trying to catch the cat would be in danger of igniting any powder on his hands or clothing. The cat would run around trying to find safety and light many fires in doing so. A hellishly good weapon.

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Jay okhomejames March 08 2014 at 11:14 AM

Corpses, especially those of people who died of the "Black Death" were hurled by catapult into the crowded, walled cities under siege by attackers. I always wondered how the attackers avoided contamination to themselves in the process.

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Phil March 08 2014 at 10:10 PM

I guess a LOLcat from that era stood for Light Or Launch...

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houseosims March 08 2014 at 7:15 PM

Obviously it was a dumb idea or we'd have heard about those16th century flaming flying cats by now.

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Michelle March 08 2014 at 7:17 PM

16th century suicide bomber or Kamikaze

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Jim Michelle March 08 2014 at 10:04 PM


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jrexmarda Jim March 08 2014 at 11:25 PM


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Bill Palazzo March 08 2014 at 7:40 PM

Early style DRONES. Wow! Even the 16th Century was ahead of us. Did they face Sequestration?

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Dotty Bill Palazzo March 08 2014 at 9:24 PM


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kcarthey March 08 2014 at 11:06 AM

Ever since some type of elastic sac was invented, filled with air and realeased, the concept of jet propulsion has existed. The question has been one of guidance. Any three year old with a baloon knows this. Cat's? Get rid of too many of them and you get the plague, germ warfare in its infancy.

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Bebe kcarthey March 08 2014 at 11:16 AM

You're probably right--the cats would have been keeping the bubonic rat population down. Kill off the cats, the rats run rampant, and a whole city/castle comes down with the plague! Frighteningly efficient.

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bmwrjw Bebe March 08 2014 at 12:15 PM

Effective if you have 6 or 7 months to wait for your plot to work.

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tshaw37 March 08 2014 at 11:07 AM

This is not a rocket, it is a fire pot that the animal would hopefully carry into the area they came from

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dfourkids March 08 2014 at 11:08 AM

So, that Monty Python movie was accurate?

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swampntv March 08 2014 at 11:09 AM


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mary swampntv March 08 2014 at 11:14 AM


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