The Bright Side

Right now it is approaching the end of January and this week’s blog is slightly longer than usual. Last month we had the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight, which means quite a few people should begin to feel happier now that our sun rises at an earlier time each day! Of course, we become used to that and then the clocks in the UK go forward an hour. Moon phases reveal the passage of time in the night sky and on some nights when we look up at the moon it is full and bright, whilst sometimes it is just a sliver of silvery light. These changes in appearance are the phases of the moon and as the moon orbits Earth, it cycles through eight distinct phases. The four primary phases of the moon occur about one week apart, with the full moon its most dazzling stage. For example we had a New Moon on January 2, a First Quarter on January 9, a Full Moon on January 17 and a Last Quarter on January 25. Then we are back to a New Moon on February 1, which will signal the beginning of the Lunar New Year. This is also called Chinese New Year and will signal the ‘Year Of The Water Tiger’. A New Moon is when our satellite is between the Earth and the Sun, so it’s not visible to us. Technology has progressed so much now and more folk take such excellent photos of the moon and other stellar objects. In addition, we can share these with family, friends, almost anyone we wish to via the Internet technology so many of us can access. But not everyone has either the access to or even the wish to use things like Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Zoom and so many others too numerous to mention. In my early days of taking photographs I used a very simple and straightforward camera, a Kodak Instamatic. Once used, I would take the film in to a local camera shop where the film would be developed and a few days later I would return to that shop to collect my pictures. Sometimes I would be pleased with the results and other times not, but I could at times get some advice a friendly shop assistant who was a photographer. I really did learn much in those early days and I am grateful even now for the help I received. I have written in a previous blogs about the different cameras I have had, from the basic ‘point and click’ up to the modern Single Lens Reflex (SLR) ones where a prism and mirror system is used to view an image exactly before it is stored electronically on a memory card. Images can now be modified, linked, such things as their brightness and contrast adjusted, all at the click of a button. Videos are made quickly and easily using simple smart phones, even if they only last a few seconds. I have no doubt that in time, more ideas will provide what to many will be seen as bigger as well as better. But we should surely not lose sight of the past, the basics, the simple ideas. There are many who will come up with new ideas, but they cannot be expected to create them at will. Likewise, those with new ideas give rise to further developments. As an example, I have previously mentioned in an earlier blog post about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.

Gunpowder is the first explosive to have been developed. Popularly listed as one of the ‘Four Great Inventions’ of China, the others being the compass, paper making and printing. Gunpowder was invented during the late Tang Dynasty in the 9th century, whilst the earliest recorded chemical formula for gunpowder dates to the Song Dynasty of the 11th century. The knowledge of gunpowder spread rapidly throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe, possibly as a result of Mongol conquests during the 13th century, with written formulas for it appearing in the Middle East between 1240 and 1280 in a treatise by Hasan-al-Rammah and in Europe by 1267 in the ‘Opus Majus’ by Roger Bacon. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 10th century in weapons such as fire arrows, bombs and the fire lance before the appearance of the gun in the 13th century. In fact whilst the fire lance was eventually supplanted by the gun, some other gunpowder weapons such as rockets and fire arrows continued to see use in China, Korea, India, and eventually Europe. Gunpowder has also been used for non-military purposes such as fireworks for entertainment, as well as in explosives for mining and tunnelling. The evolution of guns then led to the development of large artillery pieces, popularly known as bombards, during the 15th century and pioneered by states such as the Duchy of Burgundy. Firearms came to dominate early modern warfare in Europe by the 17th century and the gradual improvement of cannons firing heavier rounds for a greater impact against fortifications led to the invention of the star fort and the bastion in the Western world, where traditional city walls and castles were no longer suitable for defence. The use of gunpowder technology also spread throughout the Islamic world as well as to India, Korea and Japan. The use of gunpowder in warfare during the course of the 19th century diminished due to the invention of smokeless powder and as a result, gunpowder is often referred to nowadays as ‘black powder’ to distinguish it from the propellant used in contemporary firearms.

A Chinese fire arrow utilising a bag of gunpowder as incendiary,
c. 1390.

The earliest reference to gunpowder seems to have appeared in 142AD during the Eastern Han dynasty. It is said that an alchemist by the name of Wei Boyang was known as the ‘father of alchemy’ and wrote about a substance with gunpowder-like properties which described a mixture of three powders that would “fly and dance” violently in the ‘Book of the Kinship of Three’, a Taoist text on the subject of alchemy. However, Wei Boyang is considered to be a semi-legendary figure meant to represent a ‘collective unity’, and was probably written about in stages from the Han dynasty to 450AD. Although not specifically named, the powders were almost certainly the ingredients of gunpowder and no other explosive known to scientists is composed of such powders. Whilst it was almost certainly not their intention to create a weapon of war, Taoist alchemists continued to play a major role in the development of gunpowder due to their experiments with sulphur and saltpetre, although one historian has considered that despite the early association of gunpowder with Taoism, this may be a quirk of historiography and a result of the better preservation of texts associated with Taoism, rather than being a subject limited to only Taoists. Their quest for the elixir of life certainly attracted many powerful patrons, one of whom was Emperor Wu of Han. The next reference to gunpowder occurred in the year 300AD during the Jin dynasty and a Taoist philosopher wrote down all of the ingredients of gunpowder in his surviving works, collectively known as the ‘Baopuzi’. In 492AD, some Taoist alchemists noted that saltpetre, one of the most important ingredients in gunpowder, burns with a purple flame allowing for practical efforts at purifying the substance and during the Tang dynasty, alchemists used saltpetre in processing the four yellow drugs, namely sulphur, realgar, orpiment and arsenic trisulphide. Taoist text warned against an assortment of dangerous formulas, one of which corresponds with gunpowder, in fact alchemists called this discovery ‘fire medicine’ and the term has continued to refer to gunpowder in China into the present day, a reminder of its heritage as a side result in the search for longevity increasing drugs. A book published in 1185AD called ‘Gui Dong’, The Control of Spirits, also contains a story about a Tang dynasty alchemist whose furnace exploded, but it is not known if this was caused by gunpowder. The earliest surviving chemical formula of gunpowder dates to 1044AD in the form of the military manual, known in English as the ‘Complete Essentials for the Military Classics’, which contains a collection of facts on Chinese weaponry. However this edition has since been lost and the only currently extant copy is dated to 1510AD during the Ming dynasty. Gunpowder technology also spread to naval warfare and in 1129AD it was decreed that all warships were to be fitted with trebuchets for hurling gunpowder bombs.

By definition, a gun uses the explosive force of gunpowder to propel a projectile from a tube so cannons, muskets, and pistols are therefore typical examples. In 1259AD a type of fire-emitting lance was made from a large bamboo tube, with a pellet wad stuffed inside it. Once the fire goes off, it completely spews the rear pellet wad forward, and it has been said that “the sound is like a bomb that can be heard for five hundred or more paces”. The pellet wad mentioned is possibly the first true bullet in recorded history. Fire lances transformed from the bamboo, wood or paper-barrelled firearm to the metal-barrelled firearm in order to better withstand the explosive pressure of gunpowder. From there it branched off into several different gunpowder weapons known as ‘eruptors’ in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The oldest extant gun whose dating is unequivocal is the Xanadu Gun because it contains an inscription describing its date of manufacture corresponding to 1298AD. It is so called because it was discovered in the ruins of Xanadu, the Mongol summer palace in Inner Mongolia. The design of the gun includes axial holes in its rear which some speculate could have been used in a mounting mechanism. Another specimen, the Wuwei Bronze Cannon, was discovered in 1980 and may possibly be the oldest as well as largest cannon of the 13th century though a similar weapon was discovered in 1997, but much smaller in size. So it seems likely that the gun was born sometime during the 13th century. Gunpowder may have been used during the Mongol invasions of Europe, as shortly after the Mongol invasions of Japan which was from 1274AD to 1281AD, the Japanese produced a scroll painting depicting a bomb and is speculated to have been the Chinese thunder crash bomb. Japanese descriptions of the invasions also talk of iron and bamboo ‘pao’, causing light and fire and emitting 2 to 3,000 iron bullets.

A Swiss soldier firing a hand cannon late 14th, 15th centuries.
Illustration produced in 1874.

A common theory of how gunpowder came to Europe is that it made its way along the Silk Road, through the Middle East. Another is that it was brought to Europe during the Mongol invasion in the first half of the 13th century. Some sources claim that Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons may have been deployed by Mongols against European forces at the Battle of Mohi in 1241AD, it may also have been due to subsequent diplomatic and military contacts. Some authors have speculated that William of Rubruck, who served as an ambassador to the Mongols from 1253AD to 1255AD, was a possible intermediary in the transmission of gunpowder. The 1320s seem to have been the takeoff point for guns in Europe according to most modern military historians. Scholars suggest that the lack of gunpowder weapons in a well-traveled Venetian’s catalogue for a new crusade in 1321AD implies that guns were unknown in Europe up until this point but guns spread rapidly across Europe There was a French raiding party that sacked and burned Southampton in 1338AD who brought with them a ribaudequin, a late medieval volley gun with many small-calibre iron barrels set up in parallel on a platform. It was in use during the 14th and 15th centuries and when the gun was fired in a volley, it created a shower of iron shot. But the French brought only 3 pounds of gunpowder. Around the late 14th century European and Ottoman guns began to deviate in purpose and design from guns in China, changing from small anti-personnel and incendiary devices to the larger artillery pieces most people imagine today when using the word “cannon”, If the 1320s can be considered the arrival of the gun on the European scene, then the end of the 14th century may very well be the departure point from the trajectory of gun development in China. In the last quarter of the 14th century, European guns grew larger and began to blast down fortifications.

In India, gunpowder technology is believed to have arrived by the mid-14th century, but could have been introduced much earlier by the Mongols, who had conquered both China and some borderlands of India, perhaps as early as the mid-13th century. The unification of a large single Mongol Empire resulted in the free transmission of Chinese technology into Mongol conquered parts of India. Regardless, it is believed that the Mongols used Chinese gunpowder weapons during their invasions of India. The first gunpowder device, as opposed to naphtha-based pyrotechnics, introduced to India from China in the second half of the 13th century, was a rocket called the ‘hawai’. The rocket was used as an instrument of war from the second half of the 14th century onward, and the Delhi sultanate as well as Bahmani kingdom made good use of them.

‘Mons Meg’, a medieval Bombard weapon built in 1449.
Located in Edinburgh Castle.

As a response to gunpowder artillery, European fortifications began displaying architectural principles such as lower and thicker walls in the mid-1400s. Cannon towers were built with artillery rooms where cannons could discharge fire from slits in the walls. However this proved problematic as the slow rate of fire, reverberating concussions, and noxious fumes produced greatly hindered defenders. Gun towers also limited the size and number of cannon placements because the rooms could only be built so big. The star fort, also known as the bastion fort, was a style of fortification that became popular in Europe during the 16th century. These were developed in Italy and became widespread in Europe. The main distinguishing features of the star fort were its angle bastions, each placed to support their neighbour with lethal crossfire, covering all angles, making them extremely difficult to engage with and attack. By the 1530s the bastion fort had become the dominant defensive structure in Italy. Outside Europe, the star fort became an ‘engine of European expansion’ and acted as a force multiplier so that small European garrisons could hold out against numerically superior forces. Wherever star forts were erected, the natives experienced great difficulty in uprooting European invaders. In China, bastion forts were advocated for the construction so that their cannons could better support each other. Gun development and design in Europe reached its most classic form in the 1480s, as they were longer, lighter, more efficient, and more accurate compared to predecessors only three decades prior and the design persisted. The two primary theories for the appearance of the classic gun involve the development of gunpowder corning and a new method for casting guns. The ‘corning’ hypothesis stipulates that the longer barrels came about as a reaction to the development of corned gunpowder. Not only did corned powder keep better, because of its reduced surface area, but gunners also found that it was more powerful and easier to load into guns. Prior to corning, gunpowder would also frequently de-mix into its constitutive components and was therefore unreliable. The faster gunpowder reaction was suitable for smaller guns, since large ones had a tendency to crack, and the more controlled reaction allowed large guns to have longer, thinner walls. In India, guns made of bronze have been recovered from Calicut (1504AD) and Diu (1533AD). By the 17th century a diverse variety of firearms were being manufactured in India, large guns in particular. Gujarat supplied saltpetre in Europe for use in gunpowder warfare during the 17th century and the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and English used Chāpra as a centre of saltpetre refining. Aside from warfare, gunpowder was used for hydraulic engineering in China by 1541. Gunpowder blasting followed by dredging of the detritus was a technique which Chen Mu employed to improve the Grand Canal at the waterway where it crossed the Yellow River. In Europe, it was utilised in the construction of the ‘Canal du Midi’ in Southern France and which was completed in 1681 and linked the Mediterranean sea with the Atlantic with 240km of canal and 100 locks. But before gunpowder was applied to civil engineering, there were two ways to break up large rocks, by hard labour or by heating with large fires followed by rapid quenching. The earliest record for the use of gunpowder in mines comes from Hungary in 1627AD. It was introduced to Britain in 1638AD by German miners, after which time records are numerous but until the invention of the safety fuse in 1831, the practice was extremely dangerous. Another reason for danger were the dense fumes given off and the risk of igniting flammable gas when used in coal mines. Gunpowder was also extensively used in railway construction. At first railways followed the contours of the land, or crossed low ground by means of bridges and viaducts, but later railways made extensive use of cuttings and tunnels. One 2400-ft stretch of the 5.4 mile Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway line between London and Bristol consumed a ton of gunpowder per week for over two years. Then there is the Fréjus Rail Tunnel, also called Mont Cenis Tunnel, which is a rail tunnel some 8.5 miles (13.7 kilometres) length in the European Alps, carrying the Turin-Modane railway through Mont Cenis to an end-on connection with the Cult-Modane railway and linking Bardonecchia in Italy to Modane in France. The tunnel was completed in 13 years starting in 1857AD but, even with black powder, progress was only 25 centimetres a day until the invention of pneumatic drills, which speeded up the work. However, the latter half of the 19th century saw the invention of nitroglycerin along with nitrocellulose and smokeless powders which soon replaced traditional gunpowder in most civil and military applications. Believe it or not, there is so much more to tell on this subject and as you can see, we have learned and developed so much over the centuries. I am sure we will continue to do so. As always, I hope that it will be for the good, for the benefit of all.

This week…
A great deal has been written about marriage. I once saw the following quote: “Marriage is an institution – but not everyone wants to live in an institution”. Another is “Marriage can be like a deck of cards. At the beginning, all you need are two hearts and a diamond, but in the end you wish you had a club and a spade”…

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