During the Renaissance, when warfare was becoming increasingly complex and required new tactical solutions, German artilleryman Franz Helm proposed a unique idea – the use of animals to deliver explosive munitions.
In his artillery manual, dating from around 1530, one can find fantastic illustrations of cats and pigeons dressed in rocket satchels. The text beside them recommends that military commanders use animals to set fire to castles and towns that could not be captured by other means.
However, researcher Mitch Fraas, a humanities expert at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to get to the bottom of this mysterious story. Digitized color illustrations caught his attention, and he began research to unravel the mystery of the “rocket cats.”
The illustrations showed jets of flame shooting out of devices worn by the animals. But Fraas concluded that this does not mean that cats and pigeons were actually equipped with rocket systems in the 16th century. He believes that the illustrations served more of a symbolic purpose, to show the potential of new technologies in warfare.
Helm, an artilleryman, probably fought in several campaigns against the Turks in south-central Europe when gunpowder was the latest tool of warfare. His manual was widely circulated and illustrated by several artists. It contained many strange and gruesome images, including shrapnel bombs and rocket-like explosive devices attached to weapons.
In the accompanying text, Helm explained how to use animals to deliver explosive munitions. However, Fraas found no evidence that this scheme was actually used. He considers it unreliable and questionable, as the animal could have set fire to its own camp instead of returning to the location from which it was sent.
Thus the mystery of the “rocket cats” remains unsolved. Perhaps these illustrations were merely Helm’s imagination or a symbolic representation of the new military technologies of his time. But they still attract the attention and interest of scholars and historians.