Today, artillery goes to sea. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The first clear record of a
primitive European cannon is in a manuscript from
AD 1327. The first major battle involving firearms
was fought at Crécy in 1346.
Now historians try to figure out when gunpowder
took to the sea. They have trouble. Down through
the 1300's we find references to firearms, but
they're elusive and shadowy. For one thing, it's
hard to date those old manuscripts.
We also have trouble with Medieval terminology in
many areas. For example, it's hard to find the
switch from water clocks to mechanical clocks in
old documents. Clock makers used names of old clock
parts for parts in the new clocks.
The same problem dogs us when we read about
weapons. When we read about an arcubus on
shipboard, does it mean a gun? The word has also
been applied to crossbows -- even to longbows.
By the late 1300s we find solid references to
firearms on ships. But now we have to wonder: Are
these really naval weapons, or are ships simply
transporting artillery for armies?
It all begins to sort out by the early 1400s. In
1411 a military writer tells us that naval vessels
should greet attacking ships "ryght well with gode
bombardes." It's pretty clear that artillery is now
a part of naval tactics.
The Dukes of Burgundy in Central France honed the
cutting edge of the new weaponry. From 1362 until
1477 they created the finest of the murderous new
Here's the inventory of a Burgundian galley. The
date is 1445. It carries 5 cannons. They're 4 feet
long and fire 4-inch shot. It carries two other
mounted guns and 12 hand-held guns.
The cannons are a surprise. They appear to be
breech-loaders with interchangeable chambers. The
chambers can be rotated to avoid overheating. Now
that's very fancy technology for 1445.
In 1445, Gutenberg was creating his new printing
press. Leonardo da Vinci was born eight years
later. The new means of human slaughter was being
perfected right on the threshold of the
Firearms played counterpoint to the shining age of
art and the expansion of human vision. And I wonder
if some unwritten law of compensation might not
dictate the action of inventive minds.
So guns ceased to be a shadow accompaniment to war.
It was during the glorious Renaissance that they
became part and parcel of war -- on land, on sea,
and in the mythology of our strange rituals of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds