catapult kăt´əpŭlt˝ [key], mechanism used to throw missiles in ancient and medieval warfare. At first, catapults were specifically designed to shoot spears or other missiles at a low trajectory (see bow and arrow). They were originally distinguished from ballistae and trebuchets, both of which were large military engines used to hurl stones and other missiles, but these distinctions later blurred. Later, larger catapults mounted on a single arm also hurled stones, pots of boiling oil, and incendiaries at a high trajectory. They were used to attack or defend fortifications. Catapults were widely employed in siege warfare, but with the introduction of artillery they passed from use. In the 20th cent. catapults using hydraulic pressure were reintroduced to launch aircraft from warships.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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