Monday, January 19, 2009

The Rocket's Red Glare

I saw a pretty cool show for the first time this weekend: "Weapon Masters" on the Military Channel. According to the show website:

"Technology and history collide head-on in this action packed series, where we witness first hand the power of pivotal world-changing weapons. But did the ancient craftsman get it right? Could we make a better weapon today with modern materials, science and techniques? Or did ancient craftsmen's seemingly simple solutions make the most sense, withstanding the test of time? This is no dry, academic show - these weapons are put through their paces. In the final showdown, in which our modern weapon is pitted against the traditionally built example, we use high speed cameras and time-slice photography to capture the moment of truth - will our new sword cleave a bullet clean in two, can our crossbow shoot farther . . . or will the traditional weapon reign supreme?"

In the episode I saw this past Sunday, the hosts were looking at improvements to the Civil War-era Hale Rocket...again from the show website: "What made this cast iron, 26-pound, Civil war rocket revolutionary was its spin. By diverting some of the rocket's thrust to create spin, the Hale took advantage of the simple idea of gyroscopic force, improving both range and accuracy." (Mythbusters also looked at the Hale Rocket in one of their episodes).

The episode reminded me of a copy of a document in my collection I obtained from Alan C. Aimone several years ago when I was doing research on the early history of the chemistry department at West Point: "Military Pyrotechny for the Use of the Cadets of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point" (1835).

The text includes more than 40 pages of beautifully lithographed text of the principles of nitre, gunpowder, fulminating mercury, various chemicals and compounds from antimony to linseed oil to sulphur; the mechanics of preparing "quick match," "slow match," fuses, and primers; the manufacture of case shot, grape shot, strap shot, and musket catridges.

The best part is the section on preparing what we would think of as "pyrotechnics" - that is, "light balls," "fire balls," "incendiary balls," "Chevaux de frise foudroyans." "smoke balls," and "suffocating balls." There are several pages of text on rockets.

Even better than the text itself are more than 20 pages of illustrated plates containg hundreds of hand-drawn figures to accompany the text.

The handbook gives a wonderful idea of the typical instruction that a typical antebellum cadet received in "blowing things up." As I wrote in my article (Today's Chemist at Work, September 2000)...from its very founding, at West Point, Chemistry was a "Corps Subject"!

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