Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Baltimore Gun Club

2005 is the centenary of novelist Jules Verne's death. My favorite Verne book? From the Earth to the Moon (abbreviated as FTETTM). Verne's characterization of Civil War era technology enthusiasts is among the best and most lively descriptions of people like us that I've ever read.

Somethings don't change.
The beginning chapters of FTETTM are wonderful; and relevant to the material published here, so over the next period of days or weeks, I'm going to republish a little at a time along with a comment.

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Chapter 1 The Baltimore Gun Club

During the War of the Rebellion, a new and influential club was established in the city of Baltimore in the State of Maryland. It is well known with what energy the taste for military matters became developed among that nation of ship-owners, shopkeepers, and mechanics. Simple tradesmen jumped their counters to become extemporized captains, colonels, and generals, without having ever passed the School of Instruction at West Point; nevertheless; they quickly rivaled their compeers of the old continent, and, like them, carried off victories by dint of lavish expenditure in ammunition, money, and men.

But the point in which the Americans singularly distanced the Europeans was in the science of gunnery. Not, indeed, that their weapons retained a higher degree of perfection than theirs, but that they exhibited unheard-of dimensions, and consequently attained hitherto unheard-of ranges. In point of grazing, plunging, oblique, or enfilading, or point-blank firing, the English, French, and Prussians have nothing to learn; but their cannon, howitzers, and mortars are mere pocket-pistols compared with the formidable engines of the American artillery.

This fact need surprise no one. The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers-- just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians-- by right of birth. Nothing is more natural, therefore, than to perceive them applying their audacious ingenuity to the science of gunnery. Witness the marvels of Parrott, Dahlgren, and Rodman. The Armstrong, Palliser, and Beaulieu guns were compelled to bow before their transatlantic rivals.

My comment

The desire to build interesting things, especially things that go whoosh, boom, then splat dates far back into American history. From the Earth to the Moon depicts the tradition in full flower circa 1865. But going even further back in American history, Benjamin Franklin’s amateur experimentation with electricity arguably makes him the Founding Father of the American Technological Underground. Anybody have a different opinion?


Paul Benjamin said...

Loving the blog, is there any chance of getting an RSS feed for it? I can't see one though.

Paul Lagasse said...

You raise a compelling question about the tradition of "Yankee ingenuity," and I'd like to tack on a codicil: another American tradition is the love of attempting to "bottle lightning" by institutionalizing innovation, and thus killing it.

In a generation, rockets went from being backyard inventions to the control of NASA. Massive funding for giant vehicles, sure, but at the cost of taking it out of the hands of the tinkerers. The tinkerers could seek work with the institution, sure, but at the cost of their independence to pursue where their dreams take them. And as the institution becomes more ossified, the qualifications for entry become ever higher, locking out more tinkerers.

Now the recent attempts to resuscitate grassroots level rocket development in the US are modeled as the exception, not the rule as they once were.

Just a thought.
Paul in Baltimore (not a Gun Club member!)

cenoxo said...

As far as space rocketry goes— except for tinkerer Robert Goddard, who was largely ignored within the United States—good old Yankee ingenuity (not to mention NASA) stands squarely upon German shoulders:

At the end of the war a race between the United States and the USSR to retrieve as many V-2 rockets and staff as possible began. Three hundred trainloads of V-2s and parts were captured and shipped to the United States, added to this 126 of the principal designers, including both Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger were in American hands.

A few spoils of war never hurt.

BTW, the full text of Verne's FTETTM is available for free download at Project Gutenberg.