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!"


At 10:15 AM, Blogger TSBrat2002 said...

Goodie, more :)

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

I go back frequently to re-read these wonderful stories. Glad to see you pick it up again. It is funny how you start life with an air gun, graduate through your first .22, hunting rifles, .44mag's and .45's for pins, then action pistol, then Bullseye, only to end up just loving to shoot, with no one to impress, and an air gun once again.
I am enjoying the podcasts immensely. I have listened to all 12 several times. (I will support your sponsor.)
Best regards,

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Tom Gaylord said...


You described my own shooting journey pretty close. Thanks for your kind words.



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