Magic Bullets

A few years back James Burke presented a TV show called Connections.  In that show (and a sequel or two), Burke explored some of the odd causal links that were necessary to produce major inventions.

The paths he followed were unpredictable and digressive and gave the viewer a pretty wild set of rides.  I imagine it will surprise virtually nobody to learn that I was an avid fan of these series.   I not only love history, I also love the odd and quirky ways we humans work out own contorted versions of cause and effect.

But personally, I think Burke made things a little too simple.  When I look at history, I don’t see simple linear chains of this follows that.  What I see are networks of complex, intertwined lineages stretching off in all directions.

Imagine that you are on vacation in Virginia.  You are driving along Interstate 66 when you see a sign that says, “Manassas National Battlefield Park.”  You turn north up 234 and turn off at the Visitor’s Center, which is on Henry Hill.  After going through the Visitor’s Center, you wander north to where some gardeners are digging a hole for a new shrub by the (restored) Henry House.  One of the men picks up something from the dirt and tosses it to you.  It is a Minie Ball.  It certainly doesn’t look like a “ball.”  It is a heavy, bullet shaped thing, coated in fresh brown dirt and white lead oxide and with an odd, deep depression in its base.

At that instant you are unconsciously touching on a web of lineages.  For the Minie Ball is many things (including magic…but I’ll get to that later).  In its day it was absolutely state-of-the-art, the highest development of man’s endless effort to persuade technology to help us kill each other more efficiently.  Holding it, we are instantly connected to dozens of lines of descent, both human and technical that worked together to place it exactly here.

You will probably think about the obvious ones.  You will wonder what Yankee fired this thing at the rebels holding the hill.  You might wonder if the dent on the side means it hit some poor rebel before it buried it self in the ground.  You might allow yourself to daydream about who these two were and where they came from.  You might ask yourself whether they survived the war or if they are, perhaps, buried somewhere near you.

You could (and many have) spend endless hours tracing the histories of the people and events, the politicians and the generals that led to a battle at Manassas.  You might go on to the conduct of the battle that placed this Yankee exactly where he would fire this shot at that Confederate.  All good, soul stirring stuff, and completely valid lineages to follow, but also already endlessly hashed over.

As you try to clean off that bullet, you are also holding in your hand a device that is actually the lineal descendent of the first rock some unknown ancestor of ours picked up to throw at an enemy (or an angry wild animal).  For what is a bullet but a projectile to hurl at an enemy?  Just like that first rock, it is simply an extension of the human hand and muscle.

Rolling it around in you fingers, it doesn’t feel very different from the lead ammunition that was used in the slings of the Romans and the Greeks.  You can go see them in museums.  Deadly, frightening weapons, those slings outranged the bows of their day and inflicted especially horrible wounds…just like the Minie Ball.

Looking in another direction, you can trace that bullet all the way to Wisconsin, where the hard rock miners dug the lead for it (and copper and other metals) out of one of the richest mining areas in the United States.  But you could trace this strand back even further.  When the white surveyors discovered the rich lodes of Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, they located them by the hundred of shallow pits the Indians had scraped out over thousands of years to get their own share of the lodes’ metals.  The white men who dug the mines used techniques that stretch back across the centuries to the gold mines of Rome and the copper mines of Egypt.

If you wanted to, you could piggyback along with the ore as it traveled by rail from its source in the West (that’s what they called it then) to the local smelters and then by canal, railway and turnpike to the munitions factories of the East.  Along the way this humble ounce of lead touched on every state-of-the-art transportation method of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

Looking in another direction, that bullet was propelled by a massive charge of black powder.  There are probably vestiges of it still to be found in that depression in the base.  Looking down that lineage, we can see down through the centuries past the Dupont Powder factory that made the powder (ignore that detour off there on the left from the Dupont family to the French Revolution), we can see generations of dabbling experimenters happily blowing themselves up in their efforts to improve the product and make the bang bigger.  Beyond them we can see Roger Bacon, concealing his formula for this dreadful new (to Europe in 1260, anyway) powder in an anagram.  Looking still further down the corridor of centuries, we have to ignore the gesticulations of the German monk Berthold Schwarz (Black Berthold) putting forth his claims to having invented gunpowder.  (We can ignore him as he is a completely fictional character, although if you ever visit Freiberg in Germany you can see a very nice statue of him.)  At the end of the corridor, we can just make out a bunch of Chinese from about one thousand years ago, happily making fireworks with their new invention.

Switching to another lineage, we find ourselves looking down the barrel of the gun that set off the powder.  State of the art for its day, that gun didn’t use the notoriously unreliable flint and steel to set off the powder but the latest and greatest new product of the nascent chemical industry, fulminate of mercury.  That fulminate was housed in a little top hat shaped percussion cap.  The cap itself was possible only because the copper rolling industry had progressed to the point they could produce hundreds of tons of wafer thin copper sheets to from which to stamp the caps.  Again, state-of-the-art.

Looking down that barrel, we see the spiral grooves of the rifling.  They put us onto a line that includes the Kentucky long rifles of the Revolution, through the spinning quarrels of the medieval crossbow and the longbow shafts of Agincourt and Crecy back into the unknown mists where some ancient genius invented spin stabilization.

Look at the polished lock of the Springfield rifle and you are touching on dozens of strands, stretching both forward and back.  The iron and steel came from the just-developing mines and mills of Pittsburgh that would soon dominate the American economy.  The walnut for the stock came from the fabled American hardwood forest of Paul Bunyan and Hiawatha.  It was shaped by one of the first great thinking-outside-the-box American inventions, the Blanchard lathe.  Touching that, we are brushing against the great English machine designers who made the water powered looms that began the Industrial Revolution.

About the time of the Civil War, American industry was entering into the explosive phase of mass production that would shortly make her the technological model for the world.  Everything that happened in the twentieth century in terms of America’s leadership had its beginnings in the decade immediately before and immediately after the Civil War.  And, as it happened, the earliest work on mass production and interchangeable parts was done at the Springfield and Harpers Ferry Arsenals. So when you look at the “Springfield” rifle of the Civil War, you are touching on a nexus of nineteenth century engineering.  Wander through the corridors that touch on this device and you can reach not merely backwards to the beginnings of mass technology but also forward to reach everything from the steel mills, the coal mines, the factories right down through automated production and the computer.

When we pick up any man-made object, no matter how prosaic, perhaps we should treat it with a certain respect.  In some sense we are touching everything and everyone that helped to bring it to that moment and that place.  Just like us, every item we have made represents an enormously complex family tree composed of many separate lineages stretching off into the past.  Also like us, it contains within it some unknowable potential to shape the future.

What about that “magic” bullet?

Black powder muzzle-loader designers had a nasty problem:  Black powder so fouled the barrel that after a few shots you couldn’t force the rounds down the barrel.  The tighter they made the bullet fit the barrel, the more accurately the weapon shot, but the faster it became fouled.  So mostly they just made guns with a horrible fit (and no accuracy) but which could fire a reasonable number of rounds.

When they looked at rifling, which required a tight fitting bullet to be effective, they just threw up their hands.  What they needed was a magic bullet that would somehow change size.  It needed to be skinny to slip down the barrel but fat to engage the rifling.

It was a French captain named Minie who invented the magic bullet.  He put that big dent in the base of his bullet, making the wall around the dent fairly thin.  He made the bullet small enough to slide down the barrel.  But when the powder went off it blew into the dent, expanding the thin wall around it out to engage the rifling.

Voila!  Magic.

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