Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The windbüchse of Prostl - Part 3
A fictional account of the development of an early airgun

Part 1
Part 2

by Tom Gaylord

The next day, old August Bidderman went to work in his shop with renewed vigor. He needed a powerful screw, and he needed to attach to it a long lever—the kind with which Aristotle might have moved the world. Together, they might just provide the mighty force required to bend the solid steel lock while it was still as cold as stone.

He knew that printers had large screws to run their presses. But the force he required went so far beyond any printing press in existence that the comparison was only in kind. He needed a much larger screw than any printing press.

His answer might lie in the university. They had a machine that generated huge forces by means of a mechanical screw. Could he "borrow" just the screw? No, he could not. It was embedded within a complex press that was too valuable to be dismantled, no matter how skilled the craftsman.

Then, could he use the press? Perhaps. First, the regent would have to be informed of the complete nature of the intended experiment, and of course the university would somehow have to be compensated for the use of their valuable machine. Bidderman knew the regent wanted money for himself, but he thought he could disguise his work sufficiently to get it past him without comment. The Baron could take care of the fee. But when the price was named, it proved too large to even approach his patron.

That left him to his own devices. He would have to construct a press to generate huge forces that were beyond imagination. If only steel weren't so very hard! But that was what made it steel—after all. If only it could be hard under some circumstances and soft under others. On this point, he pondered at length, which gave him an idea. If anyone knew all the properties of steel, it had to be the very same Spaniards from whom his supply of the metal had originally come. He had to talk to one of them who knew how to work the metal. But where would he find such a man? In Vienna, of course.

The city of Vienna was famous as one of the continent's busiest crossroads, even in the early 18th century. Bidderman traveled there by coach, paid for by his patron, who knew as well as he the value of the knowledge he sought. If August said there was something he had to learn before proceeding on the gun, nothing could be allowed to hinder him.

Once in the city, he paid an agent to arrange a meeting with the right people who, as it turned out, were in permanent residence. They had been commissioned by the city fathers to construct a wondrous new clock, whose train of steel-shod gears would last a millennium or more. Their knowledge of the metal was encyclopedic, as it had to be, for they were many weeks journey from the source of metal and the legendary foundries of Toledo. Still, they managed quite well with what looked to the uninformed to be a well-provisioned blacksmith's shop. That was where the master of Prostl met with them and that was where the new knowledge was imparted.

“You see, Herr Bidderman, steel is a most complex substance." his tutors counciled. "It's nothing at all like the iron from which it is made. Even though the two metals resemble one another closely and both are known to attract the needle of a compass, steel is by far the better material. For strength and durability, it has no equal.

“Now, as to bending it—that is where the nature of the metal is to your advantage. If you are a careful worker, and we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are, you can bend the steel as easily as you can iron, yet still retain all the properties of the stronger metal."

With that pronouncement, the Spaniard showed August how, by controlling the temperature of the metal through observation of its color when heated, one could bend it as easily as iron, yet still retain all the precious carbon that gave it its character. No matter how large the piece, as long as the heat was even and controlled and did not go too high, the steel would bend.

Bidderman remained in the city a fortnight, learning all that his funds entitled him to, then he secured passage on the first coach going near his village. Within a week of returning, old August had built the special forge he required to control the temperature precisely. Like the object he was crafting, the secret of the forge was also forced wind. Another two weeks were required to fashion the powerful screw he required, together with the mechanism in which it would operate. Built mostly from iron, he used some of his precious steel to strengthen the parts that would take the largest strain.

As it turned out, the screw he needed wasn’t nearly as large as he originally imagined it would have to be. The secret of heating the steel allowed the use of much less force. That was a blessing, because even at its reduced size, making the screw proved a daunting task for the clockmaker. Its scale was beyond what he was used to.

After performing several trials to see that his new apparatus worked as intended, he finally heated the steel lock and bent it to precisely the angle he required. Because of the subtle angle put into the lock, the butt of the gun would rest squarely on the shooter's shoulder while the barrel would point naturally in the direction of the target. The bend was so trivial that August could only see it if he concentrated very hard. He had to use a straightedge to demonstrate its deflection for the casual observer, but since the gun was a secret, the only one he showed it to was the Baron. Still, it was this bend—the very whisper of a curve—that gave his weapon the grace of the ages, instead of looking like something a tinsmith had put together.

For a barrel, Bidderman selected a slender brass bar, which he had also obtained while in Vienna. This he heated and stretched by working it over an iron mandrel until it stretched three times its original length. The mandrel left a smooth bore that he could simply freshen with a small cutter, but the master was far from finished with his innovations on this gun. Instead of just reaming out a straight smooth hole as any competent gunsmith would have done, he made a tiny cutter to insert into the barrel. By following a carefully made gearing mechanism on the outside of the work, the cutter proceeded to cut a shallow spiral down the inside of the brass tube.

The cutting machine was based on one he used for clock gears, so it was little trouble to index the cutter again and again until the inside of the tube contained an even dozen scratches, all parallel to each other and all spiraling down to the muzzle. These scratches, when properly deepened by repeated cutting, were called rifling, the effects of which had been discovered by the Flemish a century before.

The original thought was that the rifling imparted a spin to the ball, which made it impossible for demons to sit astride and steer it off its course. No one believed such a myth in the 18th century, however. They had deduced that a spinning ball must act like a child's top, and be better balanced through its flight. Whatever the science, the spinning ball was proven many times more likely to strike the target than one that flew free.

Again and again, Bidderman fed his tiny cutter down each scratch. It was at this point that the precise indexing of his machine paid off, for his eyes could discern none of the grooves yet. Pass after pass of the cutter was made, deepening each groove in turn until it was finally possible to see them all. When he noticed this, he pushed a ball through the barrel and saw it come out the muzzle with the perfect impression of the rifling engraved on its sides. The Baron would have no trouble hitting what he shot at with this gun! The borrowed wind gun from the Low Countries had a smooth barrel, so already he had kept his promise to make this one better.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The windbüchse of Prostl - Part 2
A fictional account of the development of an early airgun

by Tom Gaylord

Part 1

His noble guest departed soon after their conversation, leaving the craftsman to ponder far into the evening on the lesson he had just received. Always, in his dreams, he had imagined himself born into nobility; able to enjoy life without a care. How wonderful it must be to eat choice cuts of meat and be pampered by servants who jump at your slightest beck. Furs for clothing and the finest of wines and spirits. A woman to tend the fires and throw furs on the floor so the nobleman never had to get cold feet. No ice in the wash basin, and a chambermaid to rinse the night soil from the chamber pot! Never in all his dreaming, however, had he imagined it might be worse to be somebody who actually owned something of value, because it attracted thieves in Imperial purple.

He spent the rest of that Yuletide season studying the strange wind gun, which revealed its secrets rather sooner than expected. It was really quite a simple mechanism, and, although fashioned with some care, he saw ways in which the basic wind lock might be improved. It was his gift that once a mechanism was revealed, he could see many ways to improve it. Sometimes, those changes might themselves engender other improvements, once the clumsiness of the original design was swept away.

Indeed, some days the old man would sit for hours looking at the rough-hewn wall behind his workbench, his eyes unfocused while his mind saw things he could not put into words. If a person watched him at these times, they would see his hands tracing a phantom mechanism or working a phantom fixture that was still to be built, and even then he was improving upon that which did not yet exist.

Knowing that his time with the piece was limited, he filled many parchments with notes, until it looked to him as though he might actually build the gun from the notes, themselves. Of course, such a thing was unheard of. To make a thing, you either had to have another one in front of you to copy, or you had to have such a clear idea in mind that you could make it from memory. A master like August Bidderman could do the latter, but only because he had done the former so many times before.

As winter warmed into early spring, he began to have flashes of an idea for a wind gun that carried the idea beyond the example he still possessed. He began to picture a way to channel the wind so that he could control it far more closely than did the lock on the gun from the Low Countries.

On some days, he would arise with some small part of the idea in his mind. This he committed to parchment, as though the actual gun he was imagining were in his hands. He couldn't see all of it at any one time, but he had faith that his great mind was nevertheless designing the entire piece for him. If he hadn't been a clock maker with masterpieces to his credit he would have shrugged off this strange sense of clairvoyance and stuck to what was before him, but from experience he knew he could trust his instincts.

So, on one fine day very near the time of Spring Festival, he made a call upon his patron in the great hall. That afternoon, in the formal garden he explained to the young nobelman as best he could that he could make a wind gun that would be superior in all respects to the example left by the cousin.

Von Eiger was greatly disappointed at hearing that the old master had not been busily making his gun all this time. Instead, he learned that not one piece of work had actually been started and all that existed were a pile of parchment drawings and arcane notes.

Still, he was well-acquainted with the reputation of the craftsman, having seen wondrous things come from his rude workshop. Might the old man make a wind gun that was as advanced as the great clock he had lost forever? If Bidderman felt that strongly about it, then there must be something to it. He agreed to let old August deviate from simply copying the existing wind gun and take this new direction. Within days, the idea began to take form.

The original wind gun was returned to his noble cousin who packed it into his baggage when his carriage set off for home at the end of Festival. The master continued his work in secrecy; reporting progress to the Baron at discreet encounters.

At one of these meetings, he informed his patron that he had secured a supply of Spanish steel, quite similar to the very substance from which those wizards made their famous blades. He had learned enough of its secrets to risk making the new wind gun from steel rather than iron, which any other craftsman would have used. The cost was stunning, but the Baron was thus reassured that he was getting the best the old man could make.

Several weeks later, however, when the Baron happened by the workshop, he took immediate note of the crestfallen look on the master's countenance. It was quite impossible, he was informed, to bend the steel of the lock in the fashion that he would normally use to bend iron.

The reason, he was told without understanding a tenth of it, was that steel depended upon a high content of chimney soot for its strength. He didn't see how that was possible, for you certainly couldn't see the soot within the silvery metal, but the master swore it was there. It was one of the secrets of Spanish steel. To heat the metal of the lock sufficiently to bend it to the proper angle would drive out most of the soot from the steel, leaving a poorer iron in its place.

Somehow, the tough steel lock had to be bent without resorting to heat. But that was impossible, Bidderman exclaimed. The reason he had wanted to use steel in the first place was because it didn't bend! But if he bent it in the usual fashion, it turned into the basest metal, hardly fit for door hinges, to say nothing of the masterpiece for which it was intended.

The Baron took pity on his old friend and took him to the gasthaus Grosse Bär in the village where they shared a radish on buttered rye with several tankards of beer from his own brewhaus. He let the older man pour out his heart, which, as the strong dark beer took effect, changed from remorse to mild humor.

Finally, the Baron spoke but a single thought. It would have an everlasting effect upon history. He said, "A pity old Archimedes isn't here to hear you shout 'Eureka' on the day you finally solve this problem, my friend." He thought he was only consoling the old man, but fate thought different.

"Archimedes! My God in heaven! It might work at that!" More animated than he had been in a month, Old August jumped up from his seat and began hopping around the room.

"Don't you see? Archimedes invented the force-multiplying screw! Oh, he did it to raise water, but men soon discovered that it can be used to apply force in the other direction, as well! The screw, my lord. The screw is the solution!"

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The windbüchse of Prostl
A fictional account of the development of an early airgun

At no place in the world were more exciting things to be found than in the workshop of August Bidderman, the clockmaker of Prostl. For thirty-five years he had been the region's master clockmaker, producing some of the most wondrous timepieces ever constructed. The most famous of these, of course, was the great cased hall clock he made for Baron Von Eiger, whose huge wooded estate occupied fully a quarter part of the valley in which the ancient village nestled.

That clock was said to not only tell the hour of the day or night with such remarkable precision that astronomers could perform their calculations by it; it was also a thing of enormous beauty, being cased with the finest carved walnut and heavily figured with brass and silver engravings. On the sides of the massive top, crystal windows allowed a view of the magnificent brass works. The height of the case necessitated that the one who wished to view the works be elevated more than a tall man's height from the floor, so the Baron had installed a staircase and small balcony on the end of the room in which the clock stood, the better to see the curious insides at eye level. The clock's huge weights were brass-bound dressed stone, and the massive brass pendulum was shaped after the baron's family crest.

In fact, that large clock was so beautiful that the Emperor himself coveted it. He did so to such an extent, in fact, that the Baron was forced to offer it as a gift less than a year after first installing it in his own great hall.

When the clock was first installed in his hall, the baron invited the villagers in to witness the striking of the chimes. Now, however, the clock was never seen except by nobility and the few clergy important enough to gain admittance to the private chambers of his majesty. Commoners had to content themselves with the faintest whisper of its melodic bells which could be heard outside the palace grounds on still evenings.

But clocks and the occasional watch weren't the only things the great August Bidderman made. No, indeed! He also made nautical navigating instruments of such tremendous cunning that official commissions came from as far away as England—all passing through the Emperor, of course. Bidderman's instruments were said to be one of the keys that held the English empire together, through the offices of her great navy. Within a few years, they would be combined with the newly-invented chronometer to solve mankind's greatest mystery at that time—the precise measurement of longitude! But even these famed instruments were not the extent of Bidderman's exceptional skill.

The man also made music boxes! These were the closest he came to witchcraft, for each box seemed to contain a miniature orchestra, so full and complete were the sweet strains that emanated from within. Every box played a program of eight tunes—some with accompaniment of mandolins that astounded everyone who heard them. How such wonders could be folded up and stuffed into a small pear-wood box was beyond everyone fortunate enough to behold them, but whenever they were played in public, the results could scarcely be refuted. It seemed as if God, Himself, had charged His angels to inhabit the Bidderman boxes, spreading joy to all who had ears.

At this point his greatness came to its end, or so it seemed to all but a very few people. Those who knew Bidderman well enough and were of a station to address the master by his Christian name knew that he also sometimes handled projects of such mystery and complexity that there was no way to categorize them. Among these select few people, the Baron was the only one with influence enough to get the master to do his bidding. Actually, both influence and money—for Bidderman was human, after all. He had to eat, like everyone else. So, when his patron approached him with a secret commission to make something the world had never before seen, he, alone, possessed the necessary skill to motivate old August.

The master had apprentices to train from time to time, but when the Baron made his approach for this commission, he was alone. Perhaps, with what came to pass, that was a fortunate circumstance.

It was late on a frosty December morning in the year 1724 when the Baron's carriage drew up to the front of the workshop, located in the same quaint building the old man called home. The day was sparkling clear and of such sharpness that the master bid the nobleman come quickly inside, forsaking the usual pleasantries they might have exchanged on the threshold. The carriage was dispatched on to the village for supplies, and would call for him upon its return, just before the early twilight.

Inside, the master found the best chair for his patron, then fetched them both an earthen mug of warm gluhwein while he listened to what the gentleman had to say.

The Baron had in his possession a worn wooden case, similar to one the old man might have made for one of his nautical instruments, but both longer and wider. Instead of disclosing the contents, he began with a short story about his cousin, a nobleman from the Low Countries by the North Sea. It seems this cousin had lent some money to another titled man, who, in return, gave him some property to hold for surety. The other man had unfortunately perished from plague before the debt was fully repaid, so the cousin now owned the several items deposited with him. Included in the manifest was a curiosity that he had brought with him to show to the Baron.

At this, the gentleman opened the case to reveal a snaphance, or so it seemed at first glance. But for some strange reason, this snaphance had a butt that removed from the works. And, stranger still, the butt was finished with wrought iron!
"Can you guess its purpose?" he asked the now-curious Bidderman.

For a long time, the old clockmaker spoke not a word. The silence was punctuated only by the rhythmic beat of the shop clock hanging on the wall. He took out his magnifying lens, the better to examine the inner workings of the quaint piece, but all to no avail. Although it had the unmistakable lines of a snaphance, there was no place for the flint to be held and no touchhole for the priming charge. This was no snaphance. He looked puzzled.

"I'll give you some help," the baron finally said. From the same wooden box, in a separate compartment, he produced a tubular object to which he affixed ebony handles on one end.

"I know what that is, Bidderman proclaimed. "It's a condensing syringe. I've seen them at the university. They can condense wind in a small vessel, where it can be stored until its release."

"You are correct, my old friend," said his patron with a smile. "Now, can you tell me why this syringe is needed for this snaphance?"

"My lord, I would never try to fool you. I do not have the vaguest notion of what that syringe has to do with this strange snaphance, if that is what it is."

"It has everything to do with it, Bidderman. For you see, it's not a snaphance at all. It's actually a gun that fires, using just the wind!"

The look the old man gave him was so unmasked that his young patron had to laugh. He didn't believe it! A gun that fired with wind only was beyond the pale of even Bidderman's powerful magic. He simply did not believe such a thing was possible. This the Baron had anticipated, for he, himself, had doubted what his cousin told him until the piece was actually demonstrated. So, he proceeded to do the same for the old artisan.

First, he opened a small silver vessel and dropped a few drops of what smelled like sperm whale oil into the iron fitting at the end of the butt. Then, he dropped some more oil into the end of the syringe. After that, he fastened the syringe to the butt until the joint between them was invisible. A flat plate was then screwed onto the other end of the syringe. Now, he placed the syringe on the floor of the workshop, holding the butt in his hands and proceeded to pump up and down many, many times. They both lost count, but the total number of pumps was certainly well over a hundred.

He then removed the syringe from the butt and replaced it with the lock and barrel of the gun. Then, he loaded a patched lead ball into the muzzle and, after ramming it home in the usual fashion, asked where he might safely discharge the piece. Bidderman thought he was being hoaxed, so he casually indicated the front door of his shop, whereupon the baron immediately shouldered the weapon and fired it! To Bidderman's utter astonishment, the gun actually fired, discharging its ball deeply into the thick oaken door panel with an astonishing boom!

After some moments passed and he was fully in control of his senses once more, August went over to the door to examine the hole made by the ball. It was so deep that he couldn't even see the tip of the lead. He took a sharp chisel from his bench and carefully cut around the hole until he had the lead ball in his hand. It had penetrated the hard oak door panel to a depth of the first joint of his little finger. Such power had come from nothing more than condensed wind!

"Please shoot it again, my lord," old August exclaimed. The younger man complied, and for the rest of that afternoon the two occupied themselves with the curious wind gun from the Low Countries.

Finally, the Baron revealed his true reason for coming. He said he had attempted to purchase the gun from his cousin, but the man was adamantly opposed to selling it at any price. He did, however, graciously leave it with Von Eiger until the Spring Festival, so he might enjoy the piece for a time.

"What I want is for you to make such a weapon for me. I will pay your costs and a great deal more if you can do it. Do you think you can?"

Bidderman had anticipated this request. Indeed, even if the Baron had gathered up the gun and left his workshop right then, the old man would have felt himself compelled to try to make one. More the better that the piece would be in his care for a time so he could study it at great length. "I will make such a piece or better for you, my lord. And, it will be costly, for I know not the art by which such a thing is made to work. Much of what I must do is to learn this new business before I can attempt to put it to use in any practical fashion."

"All this I know, old master. I am willing to pay your price, for you have always been just in your accounting with me. The only thing I must insist is that you not reveal what you are doing for me. No one must learn of this commission, or of the existence of the wind gun. You will no doubt recall how easily the Emperor talked me out of the fine cased hall clock you made for me. I had it less than four full seasons before he snatched it away to his private chambers. If he were to learn of this commission or of the existence of this wondrous arm, I would never be permitted to retain it for myself."

"I have often wondered why you did give him the clock, my lord. You paid so much for it and waited seven long years while I worked out the mechanism and carved the case and faceplate. What could possibly have moved you to part with something that dear?"

"What, indeed, Bidderman? How about my estate, and all that goes with it?"

"Are you saying the Emperor would have deprived you of your birthright?"

"Not directly, perhaps, but just as certainly, yes. You see, after viewing that splendid clock in my grand hall, his majesty revealed to me that he was soon to select the land needed by the royal army to use as a training ground for their horses. He confided that the decision came down to three parcels of land, one of which was in the heart of my own estate!"

"But he can't just take your land, can he, my lord?"

"No, he can't just take it. But what he can do is declare the property he needs as essential to the crown and compensate me with a stipend. Typically, I would receive one-fourth what the land would bring if a private individual purchased it. It is my station and duty to put the needs of the crown before my own, no matter what the consequences. The Emperor knows I could not refuse such an official request. Losing that land would bankrupt my family!"

"I think I understand, my lord. The crown would take your land at one-fourth its true worth, and all you would have would be the pittance they chose to pay you."

"If that were all there were to it, I would even have no complaint. No, the damage the loss of land would do to my position is much worse. I make money from my estate—from hunting and fishing leases, farming rights, timber sales and such. If I were deprived of what is essentially the heart of my finest lands, much of what I bring in would be lost forever.

"On the other hand, my estate must pay an annual tax to the crown, in return for protection from invasion, the rights I have at court, and so on. That tax is assessed against my title, without regard to the status of my estate. If I cannot pay the tax, the crown has the right to seize my property, including all my land, my home and all the chattels I hold. I would retain my title, but it wouldn't bring me a single copper penny. I'd be without means of support, like the noblemen you hear about in the great towns who must marry off their daughters to wealthy merchants in order to provide for them. Titled families are destroyed when that occurs. So, you see why I gave up the clock to save my lands, despite the anguish it caused me."

"I had no idea, my lord," the old man said.

"Of course you didn't, my friend. As a freeman and as the master clockmaker in the land, you are insulated from such travesty. The Emperor would never treat you in this manner, for fear you might steal away to England and profit their monarch instead of him. Your wealth is in what you can do, Herr Bidderman. You carry it with you, in your hands and your head. Mine, unfortunately for me, is in my title, which is tied to my estate. One less nobleman is of but little consequence to the crown. So you can see why I don't want word of this work falling into the wrong hands. I could end up paying for the Emperor's next new toy."

The old master looked into the Baron's eyes for a long moment before speaking. "You have my word, my lord. No one will know of this work."

Friday, November 09, 2007

A new article is coming!

At the Roanoke airgun show in 2007 I was asked to write another serialized story for this blog. I stopped posting here more than a year ago because there wasn't enough time.

I make my living from writing and testing airguns, so when I do things like this I'm putting off work that pays. However, I do have several articles written in the past that can serve for this site. I just located one and I'll make it ready for posting very soon.

Tom Gaylord