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."


At 4:40 PM, Blogger JoeG said...

Good story. Reminds me of modern times. Emmenant Domain. The more things change the more they stay the same.
Your talent as a writer has many sides.
Joe G from Jersey

At 5:19 PM, Blogger Tom Gaylord said...


Emminant Domain was exactly what I was trying to portray. Governments have been stealing property from individuals since they were first created, and the type doesn't matter. Except in a Communist government they just take it all up front.



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