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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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vanerdahl March 08 2014 at 10:47 AM

The Russians tried to train dogs with explosives to run under tanks during WW2 but the dogs could not tell German from Soviet tanks. So they blew up some of their own before deciding maybe that wasn't such a good idea after all.

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fscottcrawford March 08 2014 at 12:27 PM

Samson did this to the Philistines with foxes in their grain fields. Nothing new under the sun.

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garicgtab March 08 2014 at 12:27 PM

Check out the story of St. Olga of Kiev about the uses of birds to burn down a city in her time .11 century.

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TAUNA March 08 2014 at 12:26 PM

Why is it we automatically assume we've discovered proof of future technology when we see drawings like this? Haven't you ever drawn wild pictures of things just for fun? I am sure you would never imagine they would be seen hundreds of years from now and misconstrued as actual inventions,lol.

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Jacques March 08 2014 at 12:24 PM

wow, a flying *****.......cool

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the london co March 08 2014 at 12:20 PM

i love this stuff imagine how many books you would have to go through but really it's in the pictures as well -i mean you could probably tie art work to it-it's always Germany i mean why not look at the old Indian books as well -i mean i loved to go to eastern Europe and see all that area and the black forests or the old russian books as well

winston churchill once said the further into the past you look the further into the

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major52838 March 08 2014 at 12:16 PM

More likely it was to deliver a distraction of a scared cat running through the enemy camp with what looks likes a bomb on fire. The wild animal would be hard to capture and your really don't know that the device on it's back can do. It will take a considerable amount of manpower to catch the cat even if you wanted too or may just let it pass or encourage it to go somewhere else. A way putting fear into the minds of the enemy!

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Charlene March 08 2014 at 7:43 PM

Probably some drawings from a child that a father thought was amusing.

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flilguy March 08 2014 at 7:47 PM

And Grumpy Cat thinks he has it so bad!

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mashallaha March 08 2014 at 12:28 PM

Really hit or miss method, since you can't predict what the cat will do or where it would go.

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