Practical Coilgun Design

Inventor of the Ballistic Pendulum

This page is reproduced from " Backyard Ballistics" by permission of William Gurstelle.

Benjamin Robins, Inventor of the Ballistic Pendulum

Benjamin Robins was a hardworking and well-traveled engineer whose body of work provides some of the most important scientific foundations for the study of ballistics. He grew up in Bath, England, and studied sciences and engineering in London. Somewhat of a prodigy, he was published in the Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1727, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society when he was only in his mid-20s.

Robins left the academic life to become an engineer. His construction projects included civil engineering projects of all kinds: facxtories, bridges, mills, and so forth. In addition, he began to study military science. He traveled through Europe to gain experience, walking through the great castles and forts of France and southern Europe, taking notes and making drawings.

On his return to England, he published A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Certainty of Sir Isaac Newton's Method of Fluxions. Robins's book solidified Newton's reputation. Newton, as you'll recall, was a great but controversial scientist. His contemporaries seemed to side strongly with him (like Benjamin Robins) or against him (like Robert Hooke). Robins was one of Newton's most stalwart supporters, and his scholarly works boosted Newton's claims and legitimacy.

In 1742, Robins's New Principles of Gunnery, arguably his most important work, was published. This landmark text formed the basis for all subsequent work on the theory of artillery and projectiles. For this work, he received a very high honor, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. In New Principles of Gunnery, Robins built on the work of an Italian, J. D. Cassellini, who researched and published on the subject about 30 years earlier. In New Principles, Robins first develops and explains the ballistic pendulum. This device allowed precise measurements of the velocity of projectiles fired from guns. Just like our ballistic pendulum, Robins suspended a large wooden block in front of a gun and measured the height it attained after colliding with a projectile.

Robins was the consummate military engineer. A man of many talents, he experimented with rockets, publishing Rockets and the Heights to Which They Ascend in 1750. His experience and skill made him a valuable military advisor, and the king called him to service once more for a mission to Madras, India, to improve British colonial defenses in 1750. Unfortunately, the Indian climate was not good for Robins. There, he contracted a fever and died.

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