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

Myeonje Baegab: The World’s First Bulletproof Vest

Though most people in the world will never have cause to don one, bulletproof vests are fairly common items today. Every cop show or movie is required by law to have at least one scene where one of the heroes seemingly dies from a gunshot, only to reveal moments later—often after dispatching the villain—at he or she was sporting a bulletproof vest all along. (Why the bad guys only ever aim for the torso is unknown.) Once upon a time, though, the bulletproof vest was a new invention. It all started in the mid-19th century, in what is now Korea…

You Are the Joseon One

Known as myeonje baegab (alternately myuniebeagab), the world’s first soft bullet-proof vest—that is, one more flexible than plates of armor attached to a jacket—was invented in the late 1860s in the Joseon Kingdom in eastern Asia. The Kingdom of Joseon lasted from 1392 until 1897, when the area was renamed the Korean Empire. Further events led to further name changes, but we’ve neither the time nor the scope to get into those details here.

Following the French Campaign of 1866, a six-week skirmish prompted by events that we also shan’t cover here, and other growing threats from Western forces, Heungseon Daewongun, the Joseon Kingdom’ acting leader at the time, commissioned the creation of bulletproof armor. Any kind of bulletproof armor would do, but the lighter and more flexible the better. Kim Gi-du and Gang Yun, military experts and inventors, are credited with inventing the myeonje baegab.

A modern descendent of the myeonje baegab.

A modern descendent of the myeonje baegab.

Perhaps surprisingly for modern readers, the OG BPV was made mostly from good ol’ cotton. (Could the lives saved by these early ballistics vests have been the inspiration for the long-running cotton advertising slogan “The fabric of our lives”?) Anywhere from 13 to 30 layers of dense, folded cotton fabric were stitched together and enclosed in a thick outer shell. Like any vest worth its salt, the myeonje baegab covered the torso and naught else.

Battle Tested

Myeonje baegab instantly became mandatory pieces of Joseon soldiers’ battle rattle. The timing was excellent, as US Navy and Marine forces arrived in 1871 for the so-called “United States expedition to Korea.” In a battle between American and Joseon combatants on Gnagwha Island, the vests proved their mettle. They were, in fact, bulletproof!

Unfortunately, cotton is quite flammable, and many a myeonje baegab was burnt or set aflame by hot, flying shrapnel and cannon fire; more than a few Joseon soldiers caught fire during the battle. The thick cotton vests were also found to be very warm; they were too hot to wear in warmer weather, proving that being shot is actually preferable to sweating one’s tuckus off.

American forces recovered one of the vests and brought it back to the United States, where it was displayed at the Smithsonian Museum until 2007. It has since been returned to Korea (the good one), where it is on display to the public to this day.

Photo credit: BeezCombatSystems via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

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

Greek Fire: Savior of the Byzantine Empire

One of the world’s first truly effective incendiary weapons, Greek fire was developed circa 672 CE by the Byzantine Empire (a.k.a. the Eastern Roman Empire). It was a key component in numerous Byzantine naval victories, most importantly in two separate defenses of Constantinople against Arab sieges.

Greek fire is often referred to in ancient records as “sea fire,” “Roman fire,” “war fire,” “liquid fire”, “sticky fire,” or “manufactured fire.” Its exact formula has been lost to history, but its effects and influence on history are unquestioned.

Ancient Napalm

Incendiary weapons were not unheard of at the time of Greek fire’s invention—the ol’ flaming arrow was popular, of course, as were rudimentary clay-pot fire grenades. Historical records show Assyrian warriors using these and other similar weapons as far back as the 9th century BCE. Manually-operated, metal-tube flamethrowers were seen in battle at the siege of Delium (in Greece) in 424 BCE.

The exact date of Greek fire’s creation is unknown, as is the identity of the chemist or chemists who developed its unique recipe. Modern scientists have deduced that the ingredients likely included some combination of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium phosphide, sulfur, and niter.

In battle, the Byzantine navy used swiveling flamethrowers called siphōns to blast Greek fire onto the enemy. Mounted at the bow of the navy’s ships, these siphōns were constructed of brass or bronze and were often sculpted in the shape of lions or other ferocious beasts. Most accounts of its use also mention flame-fueled copper cauldrons where the material was heated prior to deployment (likely to make the resin ingredients more liquid and more sprayable), as well as hand-pumped pressure tanks to extend the siphōns’ reach.

Contemporaneous drawing of Greek fire in use against an enemy vessel.

Contemporaneous drawing of Greek fire in use against an enemy vessel.

Greek fire burned hot and fast, and, according to contemporaneous reports, could reduce a wooden boat to ash in just minutes. Modern experiments with pseudo-Greek fire have achieved flame temperatures in excess of 1,000°F. It continued to burn on water—in fact, as some tales have it, water only made Greek fire burn more intensely.

Some Like It Hot

The creation of Greek fire came at a very opportune time for the Byzantine Empire. Long wars against a variety of foes had weakened their military, and the Arabs were steadily cutting a swath across what we now call the Middle East, having conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Without Greek fire in their arsenal, it is likely the Byzantines would have fallen, as well. However, its effect in battle was more than sufficient to repel invaders and besiegers.

The Eastern Roman Empire went on to use Greek fire in numerous other conflicts, including those against the Saracens (Muslims from the northwestern Arabian region), the Rus (western Russian peoples), and in several Byzantine civil wars. (Nothing like napalming your own guys, amirite?)

Greek fire was so powerful, and became so well known throughout the region, that its discovery was eventually attributed to divine intervention. Then-Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos wrote in his book De Administrando Imperio, that the substance was “shown and revealed by an angel to the great and holy first Christian emperor Constantine.”

The recipe for Greek fire became a closely guarded state secret for the Byzantines. Few, if any, people at the time knew all of its ingredients and their quantities, and it was often concocted in “shifts”—several separate batches of ingredients were prepared, then those batches were combined to create the end result. Even the methods of construction and operation of the siphōns was compartmentalized, so that the secrets of Greek fire could not be stolen or divulged by a single individual.

Photo credit: Unknown / Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

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

The Bone Wars

Also known as “the Great Dinosaur Rush,” the Bone Wars took place during a time of intense speculation about and significant discoveries of fossils in North America. The “wars” themselves were waged by rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. The competition between Cope and Marsh was far from a friendly one: both used underhanded methods, including bribery, theft, and the destruction of bones, in attempts to outdo each other. It did not end particularly well for either man.

Not Quite A Gentleman; Not Quite A Professional

Early on in their careers, Cope and Marsh were rather close. They worked together on several occasions, and even named newly-discovered species for each other. However, both men had strong personalities, and they came from very different backgrounds and schools of scientific thought.

The argumentative, hot tempered Cope, from a wealthy and influential Quaker family, was a staunch supporter of Neo-Lamarckism. Meanwhile, the more methodical and introverted Marsh, born into a poor family in Lockport, New York, backed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. A cohort of the two remarked, “The patrician [Cope] may have considered Marsh not quite a gentleman. The academic [Marsh] probably regarded Cope as not quite a professional.”

Following a fossil-finding excursion to Cope’s family’s marl pits in New Jersey, Marsh covertly bribed the pit operators to send news of future fossil finds to him, rather than Cope. From there, personal relations between the duo fell apart quickly. The men attacked each other in newspapers and scientific publications, each hoping to ruin his rivals’ reputation and scare off future financial backers.

Dueling Dino Diggers

In 1872, Cope set off on an expedition into the American West to find new fossils. After being left high and dry in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, by his supposed supporter, the geologist Ferdinand Hayden, Cope put together a team at his own expense. Two of the men in Cope’s new crew were also employed by Marsh, and one of them accidentally forwarded some of Marsh’s material to Cope instead. Cope sent the materials back to Marsh, but Marsh was furious at having his men poached by his rival. (One claimed he had joined Cope only so he could steer him in the wrong direction.)

The growing hostilities between the two paleontologists came into the open in the spring of 1873. Marsh and Cope had each made a number of significant discoveries of ancient reptile and mammal fossils in Western bone beds. In several instances, their discoveries overlapped each other, and they openly battled and bickered over classifications and nomenclature. Ultimately, it was determined that most of Marsh’s proposed names were valid; none of Cope’s were.

Later that year, both men set in motion new expeditions to what is now South Dakota. Marsh, with scads of bones awaiting study and cataloging, stayed home, but enlisted the services of numerous local collectors who would do the actual digging and discovery for him before sending the bones back to his offices at Yale University. Cope, meanwhile, worked with the Army Corp of Engineers, and later struck up a deal with Chief Red Cloud to collect fossils on the Oglala Sioux’s tribal lands.

Apotosaurus skeleton at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, once curated by Othniel Marsh.

Apotosaurus skeleton at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, once curated by Othniel Marsh.

Rough Stuff at Como Bluff

An 1877 letter from Arthur Lakes, of Golden, Colorado, to Marsh told of Lakes’ discovery of massive bones in the nearby mountains. Lakes also sent a collection of the colossal bones to Marsh’s office. Marsh was slow to respond, so Lakes send another letter and accompanying shipment of bones, this one to Cope. However, Marsh was able to secure the prospector’s services, and published a description of the find in the American Journal of Science. Cope was preparing his own interpretation, but found that his bone supply had dried up—Lakes would be sending all further shipments to Marsh alone.

Shortly thereafter, Cope received another letter, this one from naturalist O.W. Lucas. Lucas had discovered an array of fossilized bones near Cañon City, Colorado. Hoping to cut Cope off at the pass, Marsh instructed two of his associates to set up a quarry nearby on his behalf. However, Lucas was already working with Cope and refused to jump ship to Marsh’s team.

A short while later, Marsh was contacted by two Union Pacific workers who were helping build the Transcontinental Railroad. The men, known as Carlin and Reed, claimed to have found numerous fossils near Como Bluff, and noted that others in the area were “looking for such things.” Marsh rightly assumed this meant Cope.

Fearing a Lakes repeat, Marsh quickly sent money to Carlin and Reed to secure their services and their silence. Marsh and Carlin soon met face to face, and came to terms wherein Carlin and Reed would be paid a monthly fee for their services, in addition to possible bonuses if their findings proved to be especially important. Carlin and Reed were ultimately dissatisfied with the agreement, feeling that Marsh, who flatly refused to negotiate the conditions of the deal, had bullied them into it.

Como Bluff proved to be a veritable treasure trove of fossils, with train cars full of bones being shipped to Marsh’s Yale offices on a steady basis. Dinosaur all-stars such as Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus were discovered and named based on the Como Bluff findings.

Carlin and Reed, seeing the potential for bigger paychecks, started spreading the word on the Como Bluff area. Soon, Cope had sent “dinosaur rustlers” to the region in an attempt to steal fossils from Marsh’s team. By the winter of 1878, Carlin had left Marsh’s employ and joined up with Cope.

Over the next fifteen years, from 1877 to 1892, Cope and Marsh personally funded numerous expeditions to Como Bluff which yielded literally tons of fossils. Both teams were hit hard, and repeatedly, by the weather, and even harder by sabotage from the opposition.

Both men sent spies into the other’s camps. Tensions grew within excavation teams. Marsh and Cope both ordered their workers to destroy any remaining bones at cleared-out quarries to prevent them from falling into their rival’s hands, and many sites were filled in with dirt and rocks to keep the competition at bay.

The War Draws to A Close

By 1884, Marsh was pulling ahead to victory in the Bone Wars. Thanks to rich and powerful contacts in Washington, D.C., he was made the head of the government’s consolidated geological survey team. Cope, meanwhile, faced numerous setbacks and soon found himself with his fossil collection as his only significant asset.

Cope soon got the chance to turn the tables on his former colleague. He spoke to disgruntled workers who had been dismissed from Marsh’s survey team, and with the help of his friends Henry Osborn, a Princeton professor, and William Hosea Ballou, a “newspaper man from New York,” published a series of articles journaling the mistakes and misdeeds Marsh had committed as leader of the survey.

In the articles, Cope lobbied charges of plagiarism and financial mismanagement against Marsh. Marsh published a rebuttal, and other, unaffiliated newspapers joined the fray with pieces speaking out against each man. Though the pieces gained nationwide attention, neither side gained much traction, and no clear “winner” ever emerged from the widely-published spat.

The rivalry between Cope and Marsh kept going strong, at least on a personal level, until Cope’s death in 1897. By that time, both men were destitute and each had had to sell significant portions of their respective fossil collections to support themselves.

Cope did strike a final blow, however. Upon his death, he had his skull donated to the University of Pennsylvania so that his brain size could be measured, in the hopes that it would prove to be larger than Marsh’s. (At the time, brain size was thought to be an accurate measure for intelligence.) Marsh never answered the challenge, and was buried in one piece two years later.

Photo credit: rynoceras / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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

Hand Cannon: The Cannon that Fits in Your Hand

The hand cannon is basically exactly what the name suggests: a cannon small enough for one person to carry by hand. It is quite possibly the oldest form of portable firearm, as well as a very simple one, and is, obviously, a precursor to the handgun.

A Handy Canonical History of the Hand Cannon

Like many explosive and flammable inventions (fireworks, matches, etc.), the hand cannon originated in China. The earliest known example of a hand cannon was discovered in Manchuria and dated to the 13th century CE. Visual depictions of soldiers wielding hand cannons date back to the twelfth century, in Sichuan.

Like gunpowder and spaghetti before it, the hand cannon was a Chinese invention that was quickly adopted by Europeans upon its “discovery” by Western peeps. The earliest reliable evidence of the weapon’s use in Europe dates to the 14th century; Arabian peoples are thought to have started using hand cannons around this time, as well.

Unsurprisingly, knowledge and use of the device also spread quickly throughout Asia. Historical evidence suggests that they were used in Korea by the 14th century. Though Japan learned of the weapon and its construction around this same period, firearms of any sort were not produced there in any appreciable numbers until the mid-1500s.

A surviving hand cannon from the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1271-1368)

A surviving hand cannon from the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1271-1368)

Flashy, but Dubiously Effective

The hand cannon is, essentially, a very rudimentary version of a pistol. It is comprised of a single barrel, almost invariably with a handle of some sort, and was commonly accompanied by a long wooden stock. The stock was used not to brace the weapon against the user’s shoulder, as with rifles, but rather to sturdy it against the ground.

While all surviving examples of ancient hand cannons were constructed from metal, historical evidence suggests that bamboo-barreled versions were not uncommon.

No firing mechanism was used; instead, manual ignition was required to discharge the weapon. Smoldering wood or coal, fire-heated iron rods, or matches were used to light the gunpowder inside through a touch hole at the stopped end of the barrel. Often, two people were required to fire a hand cannon: one to hold and aim the device, and another to fire it. Triangular or Y-shaped stands were sometimes used, making it possible for a gunner to support the weapon with one hand and ignite it with the other.

In the earliest days, ammunition for hand cannons often consisted of whatever its user could fit into the barrel; rocks and gravel were commonly used. Before long, more sophisticated projectiles, such as stone or iron balls or arrows, were being produced.

Unfortunately, gunpowder at that time was notoriously unstable, which severely reduced the effectiveness of the hand cannon. From what modern scientists can tell, the earliest hand cannons would’ve lacked the firepower to pierce even light armor. Accuracy was not a thing, either.

However, despite their ineffectuality as a projectile weapon, hand cannons were used with a moderate level of success in the Battle of Ain Jalut. Mamluk Egyptian combatants used hand cannons to frighten the horses of the invading Mongols, causing considerable disorder that, at least in small part, contributed to the home team’s victory.

Photo credit: Ytrottier / Foter / CC BY-SA

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

Remembering the Great Spacewar

No, the title is not a clever attempt to circumvent Star Wars copyright, nor was there some big fistfight on the International Space Station that you didn’t hear about. Spacewar was, in fact, one of the earliest computer games ever created, one that helped set the stage for the countless arcade, console, and PC video games to follow.

A Revolution in (Virtual) Space

In Spacewar, two players control virtual spaceships and attempt to blast each other to smithereens, while a star at the center of the screen creates a gravitational pull that players must maneuver around—falling into the star causes a player’s ship to explode, thus losing the game. A “hyperspace” function could be utilized, causing the player’s ship to disappear and return at a random location on screen.

By today’s video game standards, Spacewar is incredibly simple. At the time, however, it was revolutionary. Created by Martin Graetz, Steve Russell, and Wayne Wiitanen (working under the collective moniker “the Hingham Institute”), with an assist by Alan Kotok, the first version was completed in February 1962. Over 200 hours of coding work went into the initial iteration, with numerous further hours spent on additional features and revisions by Graetz, Dan Edwards, and Peter Samson.

Prior to Spacewar, numerous interactive graphical programs had been developed for the TX-0 experimental computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Hingham Institute team found that these programs failed to demonstrate the full potential of the computer, and brainstormed ideas to make them more compelling. Russell, an avid reader of science-fiction novels, came up with the space-themed concept.

"Spacewar" in all its glory.

“Spacewar” in all its glory.

The original version used a randomly-generated starfield for the background. The inaccuracy and lack of realism stuck in Samson’s craw, so he created a program dubbed “Expensive Planetarium”—the title was a nod to the cost of the team’s PDP-1 computer, on which they wrote the Spacewar programming. Expensive Planetarium was based on real star charts, and this new background would scroll slowly across the screen as the game progressed. It showed 45% of the night sky at any given time, including stars down to the fifth magnitude.

Spacewar Fever Spreads Rapidly

Other computer researchers soon learned of the game, and the code was shared throughout the community. Other programmers began creating their own variations of Spacewar, including a first-person perspective version, and new features, such as space mines.

The game quickly gained popularity, and was ported to other systems, many to other DEC systems such as the PDP-10 and PDP-11. Spacewar was also converted to work with early microcomputer systems, though many lacked sufficient memory to display the high-resolution bitmap—instead, these versions used the computers’ flexible character generators to render the ships at different angles. Other microcomputers used oscilloscopes for their graphical displays.

In the 1970s, Spacewar was ported to the HP9826 desktop calculator by a mathematician working in the Air Force’s 544th ARTW/Trajectory Division. The game proved to be an ideal “learning distraction” for engineers writing ballistic missile coding.

Photo credit: nik.clayton / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)