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No. 242:
Chinese Bombard

Today, we find a cannon that's 200 years older than it ought to be. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

For years we thought the oldest cannons were late medieval bombards. Bombards were big cast-iron pots. The French called them pots de fer -- literally, "pots of iron." They were pear-shaped with a narrow neck and a flared top. The oldest one on record shows up in a French manuscript written in 1327. It fired a projectile shaped like a spear.

Historians have argued over the source of firearms. Before 1327 one finds ambiguous hints of Arabic, Chinese, and European guns. The remains of a Chinese handgun date to 1288 -- only 39 years before that French bombard. Old writings in the West mention ordnance that might have used explosives. But, at best, they too go back only into the late 1200's.

In 1985 a visitor to a Buddhist cave in the Chinese province of Szechuan noticed something that other people had missed. There, carved on opposing walls, are groups of men, armed to the teeth. One is a demon-like fellow, holding what is unmistakably a bombard -- just like the one in the French drawing. Another holds a bomb. Both carvings are unambiguous -- they even show flames exploding outward.

But there's a catch. These figures were carved in 1128 -- two centuries before the French bombard.

Historians Lu, Needham, and Phan take this as pretty solid evidence that the cannon went from China to Europe. But why did anything so important take so long to make the trip? They come to an odd conclusion. You need a lot of saltpeter to make good gunpowder, and the best source of medieval saltpeter was animal manure. China didn't have as many domesticated animals as Europe, so saltpeter was harder to come by. Chinese gunpowder didn't have enough saltpeter in it, and it wasn't very powerful. The bombard didn't spread very rapidly in China because the Chinese used weak explosives.

The last crowning irony of these carvings is the intent of the cave itself. It's meant to propagate its builders' prayers for permanent peace -- their prayers "that weapons of war be forever stilled." The figures on the walls display all the weapons that the sculptors wanted never to be used.

Yet the new state-of-the-art bombards eventually came out of the cave and out of China. Western armorers loaded them with powerful explosives and made them into a terrible weapon. This 850-year-old prayer for permanent peace reveals the beginnings of slaughter on a scale those Buddhist monks could never have imagined.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lu, G-d., Needham, J., and Phan, C-h., The Oldest Representation of a Bombard. Technology and Culture, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1988, pp. 594-605.

This episode has been rewritten as Episode 1744.