War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!)

Raiders of the Lost Arquebus

The arquebus—also known/spelled as harquebus, harkbus, or (by far the best alternate) hackbut—is an old-timey muzzle-load firearm. Used from the 15th to 17th century CE, this smoothbore, low velocity, shoulder-fired gun is the predecessor of the more widely-known musket, with which it shares many similarities.

Hungary for Handguns

Admittedly, that header’s a little off, as the arquebus was more like a rifle. It was first used in combat in Hungary during the reign of King Matthias I “Big King Matt” Corvinus in the late 1400s. One in five soldiers in the Hungarian infantry was equipped with an arquebus, though they weren’t used often due to their low rate of fire. By the turn of the 16th century, only about ten percent of soldiers in all the armies of Western Europe were carrying firearms of any kind, underscoring the relative ineffectiveness of the guns of this era.

An extremely ornate arquebus on display in a German museum.

An extremely ornate arquebus on display in a German museum.

However, there is at least one major example of an effective tactical use of the arquebus. The Battle of Cerignola in 1503 pit the French against the Spanish. The Spanish military used the “pike and shot” formation to great effect, and their ensuing victory was the first time in history that a battle had been won through the use of gunpowder-powered, handheld firearms.

Russian to Innovate

In the early 1500s, those crafty Russians developed their own, slightly-modified version of the arquebus, known as the pishchal. One thousand pishchal’niki were so armed during the final annexation of Pskov in 1510, and a thousand more took part in the conquest of Smolensk in 1512. The pishchal’niki divisions were disbanded after their campaigns, but became a permanent addition to the Russian military in 1545, when two thousand soldiers were outfitted, trained, and dispersed throughout the ranks.

During the Battle of Bicocca in 1522, arquebuses were used for the first time to launch volley fire. By the mid-1500s, arquebuses were being issued to Portuguese and Spanish sailors and soldiers headed overseas to foreign lands. The weapons played at least a small part in Hernán “Grande Hern” Cortés’ conquest of Mexico.

A more workaday example of an arquebus on display in a Japanese museum.

A more workaday example of an arquebus on display in a Japanese museum.

In 1543, Portuguese traders introduced the arquebus to Japan. By 1550, the Japanese military was mass-producing their own versions of the firearms, called tanegashima (alternately known as teppō or hinawaju). Within a decade, over 300,000 tanegashima had been manufactured, and it eventually became one of the most important weapons in Japanese military history.

By the middle of the 1700s, however, the arquebus had been more or less replaced the world over by the lighter, faster musket.

Top photo credit: quinet via Foter.com / CC BY
Bottom photo credit: ryochiji via Foter.com / CC BY

Historical Science & Technology, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!)

Hillforts of Iron Age Britain

A hillfort (or hill fort [or hill-fort]) is pretty much just what it sounds like—a fort built into the top of a hill. Generally, hillforts featured an open central area where one or more buildings stood, with multiple ramparts of earth, stone, and/or wood surrounding the central area and proceeding down the hill to exploit the topography and gain a tactical advantage over would-be attackers. Beyond these ramparts was often a ditch or moat.

Historical evidence shows that these structures were first developed in the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age, and a number of these ancient hillforts still exist to this day. While the structures were common throughout Europe, here we will be focusing on the hillforts of Britain.

The Why, The How, The Whatnot

There are a number of theories relating to the emergence of hillforts in Britain. Some speculate that they were forts in the truest sense—military installations intended to keep invaders from mainland Europe at bay. Others argue that they may have been built by those same invaders to establish a stronghold on the island.

Modern view of Maiden Castle, built in the Iron Age near what is now Dorchester.

Modern view of Maiden Castle, built in the Iron Age near what is now Dorchester.

Still others suggest that the hillforts may have been constructed in response to social changes in the country, brought on by the increased use of iron. (It was the Iron Age, after all.) Because Britain’s prominent iron ore deposits were located in different regions than the tin and copper ore used to make bronze, trade patterns shifted greatly, and power shifted along with them.

Though a good number of hillforts were built during the Bronze Age, most of them were erected between 700 BCE and 43 CE (which coincides with the Roman conquest of Britain). Iron Age hillforts utilizes both natural and manmade defenses.

The ancient Britons built four main types of hillforts: contour, promontory, hill-slope, and plateau. Contour hillforts cut off the upper portion of the hill from the ground below with ramparts that followed the natural contours of the hill itself. Promontory hillforts limited the approach of outsiders through the use of natural features such as cliffs, steep slopes, rivers, etc. Hill-slope hillforts do not enclose the entire hilltop like contour forts do; instead, they are situated on the slope of one side of the hill, with the crest overlooking the structure. Plateau hillforts were built on the flat, level expanses of plateaus.

Photo credit: Alan Denney via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Historical Science & Technology, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!)

Historic Maritime Inventions of Ancient Africa

An 8,000 year old canoe, carved from African mahogany, was discovered in Nigeria in 1987 CE. The third oldest remaining example of a canoe in the world, and the oldest ever found on the African continent, it is noted for a “stylistic sophistication” that suggests that the practice of building canoe extends far farther back in time than the 7th century BCE. What other significant seafaring inventions have come out of Africa in centuries or millennia past?

I’m On A (Very, Very Old) Boat

The oldest Egyptian boat yet discovered is dated to roughly 3000 BCE. Evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians were assembling wooden planks into ships’ hulls at least 5,000 years ago, with woven straps used to lash the planks together and reeds or grass stuffed into the seams to seal them. A fleet of 14 boats constructed in this manner was discovered by Egyptologist David “Big Dave” O’Connor near the burial site of Pharaoh Khasekhemwy. The largest of these boats was over 75 feet long.

Other, not quite as old Egyptian vessels were built using treenails (wooden dowels), with pitch used to caulk the seams. A 140-plus foot ship, constructed in this manner and dated to roughly 2500 BCE, was discovered in a sealed pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Other surviving examples of ancient Egyptian boats used mortise and tenon joints to join planks.

These and other types of boats were used to establish a trade route across the sea between northern Africa and India. Additional evidence suggests north African boats sailing to Greece and beyond.

King Abubakari’s Armada (featuring Herman Menderchuk)

In the 14th Century CE, King Abubakari II of the Mali Empire amassed a fleet of several hundred ships. These ships, frequently sighted along the western coast of Africa, communicated with each other via drums. The sheer number of boats, and their rather impressive construction, has led many scholars to surmise that Malian seamen may very well have reached what is now North America several hundred years before Christopher Columbus.

war canoe

In addition to their mighty armada, ancient West African peoples also made extensive use of canoes and similar small vessels throughout the inland waterways of the area. Mostly carved and/or dug out from a single huge log (usually a silk cotton tree), these canoes were used for both transportation and warfare. Most were propelled by good ol’ paddles, with sails used where possible. The largest of the war-canoes measured up to 80 feet long and could carry 100 men. Tribes in the Niger Delta and what is now Guinea were especially well-known for their canoe crafting capabilities.

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Important People, Important Discoveries, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!), World-Changing Inventions

A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part II

Part I can be found here.

The Mid to Late Nineteen Hundred & Fifties

Hungarian-born American theoretical physicist, and, later, father of the hydrogen bomb Edward “Big Ed” Teller, working on “Project Matterhorn” at the newly-established Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, suggested at a group meeting that any nuclear fusion system that confined plasma within concave fields was destined to fail. Teller stated that, from what his research suggested, the only way to achieve a stable plasma configuration was via convex fields, or a “cusp” configuration.

Not THAT Matterhorn, dang it!

Not THAT Matterhorn, dang it!

Following Teller’s remarks, most of his cohorts on Project Matterhorn (which would soon be renamed “Project Sherwood”) quickly wrote up papers stating that Teller’s concerns did not apply to the devices they had been working on. Most of these chaps were working with pinch machines, which did not use magnetic fields. However, this rush of papers was quickly followed by a piece by David “Diamond Dave” Kruskal and Martin “Big Marty” Schwarzschild, which demonstrated the inherent deficits of pinch machines’ designs.

A new-and-improved pinch device, incorporating Kruskal and Schwarzschild’s suggestions, began operating in the UK in 1957. In early ’58, the British physicist Sir John “Big John” Cockcroft announced that this machine, dubbed ZETA, had successfully achieved fusion. However, US physicists soon disproved this claim, showing that the affected neutrons in ZETA’s fusion were, in fact, the result of a combination of different, previous processes. ZETA was decommissioned a decade later.

The first truly successful controlled fusion experiment was conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory, later in 1958. Using a pinch machine and a cylinder of deuterium, scientists were able to generate magnetic fields that compressed plasma to 15 million degrees Celsius, then squeezed the gas, fused it, and produced neutrons.

The Nineteen Hundred & Sixties

In 1962, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used newly-developed laser technology to produce laser fusion. This process involves imploding a target using laser beams, making it probably the coolest scientific procedure in human history.

In 1967, researchers at that same laboratory developed the magnetic mirror, a magnetic confinement device used to trap high energy plasma via a magnetic field. This device consisted of two large magnets arranged so as to create strong individual fields within them and a weaker, connected field betwixt them. Plasma introduced into the between-magnet area would bounce off the stronger fields and return to the middle.

In Novosibirsk, Russia (then the USSR) in 1968, Andrei “Big Drei” Sakharov and his research team produced the world’s first quasistationary fusion reaction. Much of the scientific community was dubious of the team’s claims, but further investigation by British researchers confirmed Sakharov et al.’s claims. This breakthrough led to the development of numerous new fusion devices, as well as the abandonment of others as their designs were repurposed to more closely replicate Sakharov’s team’s device.

The Nineteen Hundred & Seventies

John “Johnny Nucks” Nuckolls first developed the concept of ignition in 1972. Ignition, in this case, is a fusion chain reaction in which superheated helium created during fusion reheats the fuel and starts more reactions. Nuckolls hypothesized that this process would require a one kilojoule laser, prompting the creation of the Central Laser Facility in the UK in 1976.

Project PACER, carried out at Los Alamos throughout the mid-‘70s, explored to possibility of a fusion power system that would detonate small hydrogen bombs in an underground cavity. Project PACER was the only concept of a fusion energy source that could operate with existing technology. However, as it also required a large and infinite supply of nuclear bombs, it was ultimately deemed unfeasible.

Tune in next week for “A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part III”.

Photo credit: Olivier Bruchez via StoolsFair / CC BY-SA

Important People, Important Discoveries, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!), World-Changing Inventions

A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part I

I’m not gonna lie: nuclear fusion is a complex conundrum, and I will readily admit that I do not fully understand it. But, it’s an important scientific and historical concept nonetheless, and one deserving of at least a few minutes of your reading time. Follow along as we breeze all too quickly through the history of nuclear fusion research.

The Nineteen Hundred & Twenties

In 1920, English chemist and physicist Francis William “Big Frank” Aston discovered that four hydrogen atoms had a heavier total mass equivalent than the total mass of one helium atom. This, of course, meant that net energy can be released by combining hydrogen atoms to form helium. This discovery was also mankind’s first look into the chemical mechanism by which stars produce energy in such massive quantities.

Throughout the decade, English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Stanley “Big Art” Eddington championed his own hypothesis that the proton-proton chain reaction* was the primary “engine” of the sun.

The Nineteen Hundred & Thirties

Things stayed pretty quiet until 1939, when German physicist and future Nobel Prize winner (in physics, natch) Hans Bethe verified a theory that showed that beta decay* and quantum tunneling* in the sun’s core could potentially convert protons into neutrons. This reaction, of course, produces deuterium rather than a simple diproton, and deuterium, as we all know, fuses with other reactions for increased energy output.

The Nineteen Hundred & Forties

Thanks to World War II, the Manhattan Project became the world’s biggest nuclear fusion project in 1942. We all know how that ended.

Pesky monkeys!

Pesky monkeys!

The UK Atomic Energy Authority registered the world’s first patent for a fusion reactor in 1946. Invented by English physicist and future Nobel Laurate in physics Sir George Paget “Big George” Thomson and British crystallographer Moses “Big Moses” Blackman, it was the first detailed examination of the Z-pinch concept.*

In 1947, two team of scientists in the United Kingdom performed a series of small experiments in nuclear fusion, expanding the size and scope of their experiments as they went along. Later experiments were inspired in part by the Huemul Project undertaken by German expat scientist Ronald “Big Ron” Richter in Argentina in 1949.

The Early Nineteen Hundred & Fifties

The first successful manmade fusion device—the boosted fission weapon, which doesn’t sound like something you should worry about at all—was first tested in 1951. This miniature nuclear bomb (again, don’t worry about it, I’m sure it’s fine) used a small amount of fusion fuel to increase the rate and yield of a fission reaction.

New and “improved” version of the device appeared in the years that followed. “Ivy Mike” in 1952 was the first example of a “true” fusion weapon, while “Castle Bravo” in 1954 was the first practical example of the technology. These devices used uncontrolled fusion reactions to release neutrons, which cause the atoms in the surrounding fission fuel to split apart almost instantaneously, increasing the effectiveness of explosive weapons. Unlike normal fission weapons (“normal” bombs), fusion weapons have no practical upper limit to their explosiveness.

"Ivy Mike" blowin' up real good, November 1952.

“Ivy Mike” blowin’ up real good, November 1952.

Spurred on by Richter’s findings (which were later found to be fake), James Leslie “Big Jim” Tuck, a physicist formerly working with one of the UK teams but by then working in Los Alamos, introduced the pinch concept to United States scientists. Tuck produced the excellently-named Perhapsatron, an early fusion power device based on the Z-pinch concept. The first Perhapsatron prototype was completed in 1953, and new and improved models followed periodically until research into the pinch concept more or less ended in the early ‘60s.

Be sure to join us next week for “A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part II”.

* which we haven’t even remotely the time, energy, or intellect to get into here

Manhattan Project Photo credit: Manchester Library via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Ivy Mike Photo credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream via Foter.com / CC BY