This autumn, I drove past an unusual site in rural New Hampshire: a giant contraption towering above crowds of cheering people. Suddenly, I saw the machine’s “arm” swing forward to hurl something through the air—why, was that a flying pumpkin?
Indeed, I had discovered “pumpkin chunkin,” an unusual competition that involves catapulting pumpkins over great distances—in this case, over 2000 feet!
Part Americana, part medieval, this unusual activity uses a 60-foot steel throwing machine called a “trebuchet,” a type of catapult.
What are Trebuchets?
Catapults and trebuchets were first used in the first century B.C. as arrow-shooting machines and later used in medieval times to lay siege to castles. The word “catapult” comes from the Greek kata which means “downward,” and pultos which means “shield.” The literal translation is “shield piercer.”
As I joined the crowd, the speaker informed us that “trebuchets” use a weighted beam that swings a sling carrying large round rocks—in this case, the projectile is a pumpkin or another safe object. A trebuchet uses gravity as its source of energy. The big box thing is cranked up by hand. When the weight drops, it whips around the throwing arm holding the pumpkin.
The common catapult is a bit different in that it simply launches a projectile from a winched-down bucket at the end of a giant arm.
What is Pumpkin Chunkin’
The folks working the trebuchets were definitely guys into building machines. I met farmers, construction workers, and backyard engineers. A few guys were definitely into medieval armaments, too.
I also came across groups of students with small trebuchets. They clearly loved to build and explore the physics of how to throw an object the furthest. It’s really an exciting project for any student.
Image: Science in action! Credit: Edlin School
Mechanics aside, this was a very strange life for our orange squash friends!
Pumpkins were loaded into a basket, a countdown started, and then the pumpkin flew high, traveling hundreds of yards across a barren field until it smashed near a stone “castle” build on the hilltop.
Everywhere cheered if the trebuchet worked and made a compassionate “ahhh” if it failed. A couple people felt badly for the squash (though they were mostly overgrown and inedible).
I guess some pumpkins are made into pumpkin pies to be gobbled up. Some are carved into jack-o’-lanterns to smile on Halloween.
And some get to be high-flying pies in the sky before crashing back to the Earth from whence they came.