The most powerful invention in world history

(Published in GralsWelt 50/2008)

700 years of firearms - a cause for reflection.

At the beginning of the 14th century, probably in 1308, 700 years ago, the first cannon was fired in Europe. One of the most momentous inventions of all time reached our Old Continent: Firearms soon became the most powerful single factor that has ever influenced world history. The rise of Europe to the leading continent was accompanied by the thunder of cannons - an invention for which there is no model in nature.

Cannons write bloody history

When, as in most cases, humanities scholars write history books, the importance of technical innovation (as well as the influence of disease) is usually undervalued compared to political maneuvers and military strategies.

Take, for example, the descriptions of the enigmatic ascent of the Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans, 1412-1431) and her sad demise in the texts of French historians. It was therefore she who awakened the fighting spirit of the French and made it possible for Charles VII to drive the English occupiers out of Normandy in 1453, thereby effectively ending the Hundred Years War.

In British historiography, however, the defeat of the English is often attributed to the mismanagement of the English government.

The fact that Charles VII used a new weapon that was decisive for the war is hardly mentioned: with the help of heavy siege guns, he was able to take 60 places occupied by the British in 16 months.

The Turks also succeeded in conquering Constantinople in 1453 through the use of the largest cannons seen until then, which, to make matters worse, had been cast by a European renegade. These giant guns could fire projectiles weighing over 800 pounds four times a day. It took 200 people and 70 pairs of oxen to move these monsters. As always, nothing was too expensive for war and conquest!

The examples of the decisive importance of cannons and rifles in a war can be continued as desired. The war technology and the relations of rule changed with the new weapons. The cost of the war rose. Castles were no longer safe havens that could only be conquered by starvation. They were replaced by more complex fortifications equipped with heavy artillery.

The proud knights could do without their heavy armor, which did not protect against modern firearms. The knighthood lost prestige and power. It had to grudgingly accept the emergence of the bourgeoisie and the development of cities into new centers of power.

Firearms also gave their owners decisive superiority over natural and less well-armed civilized peoples. With their superior armament, conquerors, colonialists, exploiters and slave traders submitted to essential parts of the countries and continents discovered by the great seafarers.
Their voyages of discovery would hardly have been possible without cannons and muskets with which navigators, researchers, traders and adventurers could defend their mostly tiny ships against natives or pirates.

The rise of Europe to the leading continent was accompanied by the thunder of cannons and the crack of muskets.

The origin of the firearms
Like many fundamental inventions, gunpowder also came from China by unknown routes. There it is said to have been used as an explosive as early as 250 and in the 9th century to make fireworks. Did the Byzantines have had a forerunner to gunpowder with the Greek fire since 673, with the help of which they could defend Constantinople against the onslaught from the east for almost eight centuries? This question must remain unanswered as the recipe for the Greek fire has been lost. (1).
In any case, the Chinese built fireworks, rockets, incendiary arrows and incendiary projectiles by the 13th century at the latest. European armies first experienced the terrible effects of these “miracle weapons” in lost battles against the superior Mongols (as in 1241 near Liegnitz). During the war, gunpowder was first used in the form of incendiary devices and rockets, and later in cannons. Today, after seven centuries, the rocket is again the most modern weapon of war with the longest range.
The Franciscan appears in Western literature Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a universal genius of the Middle Ages, a recipe for black powder (which consists of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal) in the form of an anagram. Often cited as the inventor of gunpowder, the monk and alchemist Berthold Schwarz did not invent powder in the 13th or beginning of the 14th century, but - if at all - perhaps recognized its driving force. (4, p. 309).
It is controversial who built the first real cannon, whether Chinese or Indian. In any case, firearms existed in Asia as early as the 13th century.
It is also controversial in which European war a cannon was fired for the first time. Allegedly, troops of the relatively insignificant Ferdinand IV - he was King of Castile and Leon from 1295 to 1312 - used cannons in the Battle of Gibraltar in 1308 that were copied from the Arabs. This conquered the rock for the Spaniards.
Or did the first cannons not pound until the siege of Puy Guillaume in 1338?
Perhaps it was also the English King Edward II who was the first to achieve a victory at Crécy in 1346 with the new miracle weapon, which, however, is mainly attributed to the speed and accuracy of the English archers.
The use of small arms is first recorded for 1331. The German knights von Crusberg and von Splinberg used them during the unsuccessful siege of Cividale in Friuli. (4, p. 317).
The first cannons were heavy, crashing monsters; they were considered the devil's stuff. It was a matter of luck whether the projectile hit (usually a stone ball) or whether the cannon barrel exploded. According to the Fama, a gunsmith had to repent after hitting three times in a row; for, in the opinion of some priests, such accuracy was only possible with the help of evil. The folk tales of the “Freikugel”, such as those used in Weber's opera “Freischütz”, are reminiscent of such superstitions.
But the development of cannons, the “most primitive thermodynamic machines”, could not be stopped. Gunsmiths poured bigger and better pipes. Alchemists improved gunpowder. Gunmen fired iron bullets. Mathematicians developed a new science, ballistics, to calculate bullet trajectories.

The most important invention of all time?

Using fire was undoubtedly a key invention of mankind, which made it possible for them to rise to culture and civilization. The warmth of a flame - together with the invention of clothing - made it possible to colonize cool regions, to prepare food better and to protect it from wild animals.

Later, with the help of fire, metals were smelted and processed. Over the millennia, advanced civilizations emerged that were almost entirely dependent on human and animal muscle power and could only use the power of wind and water a little.

Aristotle, the great blocker
For many centuries, the “heathen” Aristotle was considered an incontestable authority by Christian scholars. As a result, his astronomical and physical mistakes hindered scientific progress.
In astronomy, Aristotle claimed that "a center of motion cannot itself be moved". Accordingly, the earth, as the center of movement of the moon, had to stand still.
According to Aristotle, the proportionality of force and speed applied in physics. According to Newton's definition this would mean: "Force equals mass times speed" instead of the correct wording "Force equals mass times acceleration". At first glance, only a minor difference, but crucial: Aristotelians could not separate force and energy, and they did not distinguish between weight and mass. Terms that are still often equated in everyday life today. Aristotle did not know the difference between air and water vapor, and he did not know anything about gases. His proverbial "horror vacui" (the fear of emptiness) claimed that nature does not tolerate empty spaces. Atmospheric steam engines (they create a vacuum with steam and allow atmospheric pressure to work), as they ran in the 18th century, were therefore considered impossible. Anyone who dreamed of generating thermal energy was ridiculed by the Aristotelians. Similar to what happens to inventors today who want to build machines that violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (See. "Energy, Entropy and Time", under "Science").
In modern times, the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo refuted some of the ideas of Aristotle and his epigones, until Newtonian mechanics finally brought about a decisive breakthrough. The age of the natural sciences began on this basis. Only now were Enlightenment scientists gradually able to differentiate between temperature (a state variable) and warmth (energy). The relationship between temperature, pressure and volume of water vapor and gases was measured and shown in state diagrams. The way was open to the development of thermodynamics.

Until well into modern times, the only mechanical aids available were pulley blocks, levers, wedges, wheels, rollers, inclined planes, screws, ropes, winches, cogwheels and the like. With such modest technical means, pyramids, temples, canals, dams, bridges, thermal baths, castles, palaces, large sailing ships, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals were built, which we still admire today.

But then another, completely new application of fire was discovered and developed: gunpowder and the cannon. Powder and firearms have improved over the centuries; but nobody understood what was going on in this novel use of fire, in the explosive combustion of black powder with great heat development.

The worldview of the Middle Ages, based on the Bible and the erroneous hypotheses of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), contained too many blockages for understanding such a process, which is relatively simple from today's perspective.

It also remains unclear why black powder, a not too complicated mixture of substances with striking properties, was only discovered in the Middle Ages. And an old controversial question is why the ancient Romans weren't able to build powder guns and thus defend their empire against the onslaught of barbarians for centuries to come.
It was probably due to the fact that saltpetre, as an important source of oxygen for explosive combustion, was unknown in Europe. It was not until the 13th or the beginning of the 14th century that the Arabs found out about this “salt of China”, which soon became known in Europe as well.

An invention without a model in nature

Without realizing it, with the invention of firearms, mankind entered a previously undeveloped area of physics: the thermodynamics (Thermal theory), the importance of which for weapon development, warfare, energy technology, economy, transport, and the scientific worldview can hardly be overestimated.

A cannon is - next to the rocket - the simplest thermodynamic machine. The explosive combustion of black powder creates high temperatures. The red-hot combustion gases want to expand 3,000 times and push the projectile out of the barrel with strong acceleration in a firearm. Even simple rifles and cannons fire projectiles at speeds of 100 meters per second and more. The chemical energy of the powder is converted into thermal energy, and this in turn becomes kinetic energy in the directional movement of the bullet.

There is hardly a model for this process in nature, most likely in a volcanic eruption. Because on earth nature prefers energetic conversion at low temperatures. For plants and many animals it is the respective ambient temperature, for animals of the same temperature and for the human body it is around 37 degrees Celsius.

Has the invention of rockets and cannons been a long time coming because there are no natural models for them?

Thermal energy generator
At the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, the first "fire engines" (atmospheric steam engines) were put into operation in England. They had a low level of efficiency, but were already able to pump out drowning coal mines and thus save them from total loss (Savary, Newcomen, Smeaton).
Successful after years of effort James Watt (1736-1819) the great success around 1776: The construction of the first modern steam engine, which already had a number of features that persisted into the 20th century. Incidentally, Watt's first steam engines were not sold, but for a third of the savings in operating costs compared to one Newcomers-Machine leased! According to the watt found improvements, the steam age and with it the industrial revolution could begin.
When the first usable steam engines were running at the end of the 18th century, the theory of heat engines was urgently required. In addition, the ingenious published in 1824 Nicolaus Léonard Sadi Carnot (1798-1832) wrote his theory of ideal cycle processes, which is still trend-setting today. Now the connection between heat and mechanical energy still had to be established: This was done in 1842 Julius Robert Mayer (1814-1878) measured the energy law, and 1843 James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) the mechanical heat equivalent. With that, thermodynamics was established as a science, and thermal machines continued to develop rapidly.
Piston steam engines dominated the 19th century and were replaced by steam turbines, gas turbines and internal combustion engines with internal combustion in the 20th century.
The conversion of heat into kinetic energy (mechanical energy) had started with the most primitive machines - rockets and cannons. In the course of further development, the many thermal (heat-based) engines on which our current energy technology is based emerged: coal-fired power plants, oil-fired power plants, gas-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, automobiles, motorcycles, construction machinery, ships, airplanes, diesel locomotives, chainsaws, lawnmowers, etc. All of them work it with thermal cycle processes, as already idealized by Carnot. Today, the supply of electrical or mechanical energy depends to over 90 percent on thermal machines, most of which are dependent on non-renewable fuels. The much-discussed global warming is said to be in large part attributable to these thermal energy converters.

In the first century AD, the ingenious one already had that steam can exert forces Heron of Alexandria shown, whose “aeol ball” (a rotatable, water-filled ball that is set in rotation by steam nozzles) is a primitive reaction turbine. But nobody thought of serious applications or even further developments. Was slave labor so cheap that complex technology didn't seem worthwhile?

In modern times, a difficult path then had to be traversed until the “New Science”, natural science, was able to overcome medieval prejudices step by step. It was especially the wrong approaches of Aristotelian physics - considered inviolable in the Middle Ages - that blocked the development of technology for almost two millennia.

The way was far from experiments with gunpowder engines like her Christian Huygens (1629-1695) carried out, Denis Papins (1647-1712) Experiments with piston engines and many more approaches, up to the invention of steam engines, which could continuously convert heat energy into kinetic energy.

In cannons, heat-to-motion had been working for four hundred years; but only as an “open process”, ie as a one-way process that requires subsequent reloading.

A dangerous one-sidedness?

Only in the last few decades have we become aware of the one-sidedness with which we have made ourselves dependent on thermal machines with high temperature gradients. In complete contrast to earthly nature, which covers the energy needs of living beings through chemical reactions at relatively low temperatures and lower power densities. A low-temperature energy technology that is comparable (even remotely) to nature has only been rudimentary so far, for example with photovoltaics and fuel cells.
Today the new challenge for us is to cautiously get out of the current situation and rely on more natural technologies for the future.

The 700th anniversary since the first cannon was fired in Europe may be a good date not only to discuss war and weapons of war, which of course should be ostracized, but also to reflect extensively on energy problems and energy supplies.

You can also read about this in “In a nutshell, curiously” on page 369 “How the 'Liquid Fire' saved Christianity”.

(1) Frischler Kurt, Wunderwaffen, Fritz Molden, Vienna 1956.
(2) Gohlke Wilhelm, history of all firearms up to 1850, Göschen 1977.
(3) Leithäuser Joachim G., The Second Creation of the World, Safari, Berlin 1957.
(4) Lippmann Edmund O., On the history of gunpowder and older firearms, Zeitschrift für Naturwissenschaften, Volume 71, pp. 295 f., E. Schweizerbart, Stuttgart 1898.
(5) Meyer Moritz, Handbuch der Geschichte der Feuerwaffentechnik, Schlesinger, Berlin 1825.
(6) Pope Dudley, Feuerwaffen, R. Löwit, Wiesbaden 1971.
(7) Störing Hans Joachim, Little World History of Science, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1954.