Remember the Battle of La Margarita?…Hopefully, the answer is ‘no’

| May 1, 2008

“Only at a women’s college can you have a trebuchet sling be a brassiere cup,” Sweet Briar assistant professor of engineering Scott Pierce observed, watching his students maneuver their medieval-era weapons into launch positions.

A C-cup, purple in color.

The two trebuchets made of two-by-fours represent the students’ end-of-semester projects. They had designed, analyzed, modeled, constructed and analyzed some more; it was time to see which machine would perform closest to their mathematical predictions. This is the point in the engineering process where reality and math intersect, Pierce said.

Meanwhile, quite a crowd gathered on the hillside next to Prothro, spurred there by an irresistible invitation e-mailed by Pierce the previous day. They came to watch an epic contest between the two teams, all students in his upper-level dynamics and kinematics class.

The announcement billed the affair as a re-enactment of the Battle of La Margarita when, the e-mail said, on May 5, 1963 a “brave unit of the Mexican Army, outraged by what they perceived as overly conservative political practices by the government of Texas, attacked the Alamo by hurling giant limes at the building using trebuchets.

“The building’s defenses quickly fell, the Mexican flag was raised, and drinks were served. As everyone knows, this is the reason that we celebrate Cinco de Mayo by drinking lime margaritas.”

Minor consternation followed the landing of this historical bomb in inboxes across campus. Some worried Pierce had badly confused his history. Fingers flew to Wikipedia, searching on “Alamo” and “Battle of La Margarita.”

“It’s a joke,” said a bemused Pierce, just a funny story line combining the infamous Alamo defense and Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo holiday. He had figured the minutiae would give it away, sensibly pointing out that lobbing limes at the fort probably wouldn’t have worked.

“Clearly my sense of humor is overrated by myself,” he said. “But my students thought it was hilarious.”

Besides, weaponry had come a long way from the trebuchet, a catapult-like flinging device, by 1963. Still, it was the shooter of choice for the study of rigid bodies in motion — the short definition of dynamics. “The trebuchet is a classic dynamics problem,” Scott said.

For consistency, the projectiles were actually fake limes. The target: An inexact replica of the Alamo, handcrafted by Pierce.

After a series of trials in which the distance and accuracy of each launch were recorded, the students put their heads together to tally the results. “Come on, now,” senior Ruthanne Ratliff piped up amid the ciphering. “We’re engineers. We can do math.”

Team Jose Cuervo won the day, beating Team Los Positivo Fringe by a hairsbreadth. The prize was a candy-filled piñata that came with the option to load it into the winning trebuchet and chuck it.

“We’re throwing this thing,” said Amanda Baker, a junior engineering major.

Sophomore Jenna Wasylenko wasn’t so sure. “I don’t think it will fit in my bra.”

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Engineering Science