Ancient  History

By Bob England 

At Christmas I received a most interesting book on the history of inventions. Naturally there is a section of the history of warfare, and I found the chapters on armaments fascinating. 

We tend to believe that most of the great inventions were given birth only in the 19th or 20th centuries. But in fact these were only developments of very much older ideas. 

It was as recent as 1985 that a cave temple in Ta-tsu in China was discovered and was found to contain a scene showing a figure (a soldier?) holding a tube from which was emerging flames and a projectile. The temple was dated at around 1128 and it is believed that it depicts the first known "rifle". 

Even the idea of "rapid fire" is not new. Around 1000  a cross bow had been produced which had its own magazine of crossbow bolts fitted above the groove in the catapult into which a bolt dropped as the previous one was fired. However this had only limited use as it was heavy and cumbersome to move. 

By the 12th century the Chinese had developed the system for hand-held crossbows and test firing of modern replicas proved that a force of 100 men could fire 2000 crossbow bolts in 15 seconds over a range of 80 yards! 

The earliest known depiction of a cannon was found in a manuscript of 1327 and shows a soldier in armour applying a red-hot iron to the touch-hole of a vase-shaped cannon. In the muzzle is a large arrow. 

Land mines were known to be used by the Chinese as early as 1277. Then it was called "The Underground Sky-soaring Thunder". When a shallow buried plate was stepped upon, a fuse was ignited and gunpowder was exploded. 

By the 14th century a sea mine was produced which floated inside an ox skin. When a fuse, an incense stick, burned down, the mine exploded. 

That most horrible of weapons, the flame thrower, can be traced back even further. They were known to be used at sea by the Greeks in 647 and was known as "Greek Fire". It was a mixture of saltpetre, gasoline, pine resin and gum resin. This was squirted over the enemy through a pump, sometime mounted on the prow of a vessel, which had to be re-charged after each burst or put into shells and fired by catapult. This mixture, being oil-based would float and burn on the water and so destroy the wooden hulls of vessels. Even earlier than this it was recorded that in the Peloponnsia War of 424, the long seige of Darlion was ended when the walls of the town were burned down. It was written that the attackers used long tubes on wheels containing burning charcoal, sulphur and pitch, behind which were bellows to blow the flames forward. 

Another scourge of warfare, poison gas, was known to be used on the battlefield by the
beginning of the 16th century. 

Among famous last words must be those of a General in the 17th century who declared that warfare must soon come to an end because he believed that weaponry had been developed as far as it could possible go. Would anyone today like to make the same statement?    W                                            

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