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Chapter IX: The Question of the Powders
There remained for consideration merely the question of powders.
The public awaited with interest its final decision. The size
of the projectile, the length of the cannon being settled, what
would be the quantity of powder necessary to produce impulsion?
It is generally asserted that gunpowder was invented in the
fourteenth century by the monk Schwartz, who paid for his grand
discovery with his life. It is, however, pretty well proved
that this story ought to be ranked among the egends of the
middle ages. Gunpowder was not invented by any one; it was the
lineal successor of the Greek fire, which, like itself, was
composed of sulfur and saltpeter. Few persons are acquainted
with the mechanical power of gunpowder. Now this is precisely
what is necessary to be understood in order to comprehend the
importance of the question submitted to the committee.
A litre of gunpowder weighs about two pounds; during combustion
it produces 400 litres of gas. This gas, on being liberated and
acted upon by temperature raised to 2,400 degrees, occupies a
space of 4,000 litres: consequently the volume of powder is to
the volume of gas produced by its combustion as 1 to 4,000.
One may judge, therefore, of the tremendous pressure on this
gas when compressed within a space 4,000 times too confined.
All this was, of course, well known to the members of the committee
when they met on the following evening.
The first speaker on this occasion was Major Elphinstone, who
had been the director of the gunpowder factories during the war.
"Gentlemen," said this distinguished chemist, "I begin with
some figures which will serve as the basis of our calculation.
The old 24-pounder shot required for its discharge sixteen pounds
"You are certain of this amount?" broke in Barbicane.
"Quite certain," replied the major. "The Armstrong cannon
employs only seventy-five pounds of powder for a projectile
of eight hundred pounds, and the Rodman Columbiad uses only one
hundred and sixty pounds of powder to send its half ton shot a
distance of six miles. These facts cannot be called in question,
for I myself raised the point during the depositions taken before
the committee of artillery."
"Quite true," said the general.
"Well," replied the major, "these figures go to prove that the
quantity of powder is not increased with the weight of the shot;
that is to say, if a 24-pounder shot requires sixteen pounds of
powder;-- in other words, if in ordinary guns we employ a
quantity of powder equal to two-thirds of the weight of the
projectile, this proportion is not constant. Calculate, and you
will see that in place of three hundred and thirty-three pounds
of powder, the quantity is reduced to no more than one hundred
and sixty pounds."
"What are you aiming at?" asked the president.
"If you push your theory to extremes, my dear major," said J. T.
Maston, "you will get to this, that as soon as your shot becomes
sufficiently heavy you will not require any powder at all."
"Our friend Maston is always at his jokes, even in serious
matters," cried the major; "but let him make his mind easy, I am
going presently to propose gunpowder enough to satisfy his
artillerist's propensities. I only keep to statistical facts
when I say that, during the war, and for the very largest guns,
the weight of the powder was reduced, as the result of
experience, to a tenth part of the weight of the shot."
"Perfectly correct," said Morgan; "but before deciding the
quantity of powder necessary to give the impulse, I think it
would be as well----"
"We shall have to employ a large-grained powder," continued the
major; "its combustion is more rapid than that of the small."
"No doubt about that," replied Morgan; "but it is very
destructive, and ends by enlarging the bore of the pieces."
"Granted; but that which is injurious to a gun destined to
perform long service is not so to our Columbiad. We shall
run no danger of an explosion; and it is necessary that our
powder should take fire instantaneously in order that its
mechanical effect may be complete."
"We must have," said Maston, "several touch-holes, so as to fire
it at different points at the same time."
"Certainly," replied Elphinstone; "but that will render the
working of the piece more difficult. I return then to my
large-grained powder, which removes those difficulties.
In his Columbiad charges Rodman employed a powder as large
as chestnuts, made of willow charcoal, simply dried in cast-
iron pans. This powder was hard and glittering, left no trace
upon the hand, contained hydrogen and oxygen in large proportion,
took fire instantaneously, and, though very destructive, did not
sensibly injure the mouth-piece."
Up to this point Barbicane had kept aloof from the discussion;
he left the others to speak while he himself listened; he had
evidently got an idea. He now simply said, "Well, my friends,
what quantity of powder do you propose?"
The three members looked at one another.
"Two hundred thousand pounds." at last said Morgan.
"Five hundred thousand," added the major.
"Eight hundred thousand," screamed Maston.
A moment of silence followed this triple proposal; it was at
last broken by the president.
"Gentlemen," he quietly said, "I start from this principle, that
the resistance of a gun, constructed under the given conditions,
is unlimited. I shall surprise our friend Maston, then, by
stigmatizing his calculations as timid; and I propose to double
his 800,000 pounds of powder."
"Sixteen hundred thousand pounds?" shouted Maston, leaping from
"We shall have to come then to my ideal of a cannon half a mile
long; for you see 1,600,000 pounds will occupy a space of about
20,000 cubic feet; and since the contents of your cannon do not
exceed 54,000 cubic feet, it would be half full; and the bore
will not be more than long enough for the gas to communicate to
the projectile sufficient impulse."
"Nevertheless," said the president, "I hold to that quantity
of powder. Now, 1,600,000 pounds of powder will create
6,000,000,000 litres of gas. Six thousand millions!
You quite understand?"
"What is to be done then?" said the general
"The thing is very simple; we must reduce this enormous quantity
of powder, while preserving to it its mechanical power."
"Good; but by what means?"
"I am going to tell you," replied Barbicane quietly.
"Nothing is more easy than to reduce this mass to one quarter of
its bulk. You know that curious cellular matter which
constitutes the elementary tissues of vegetable? This substance
is found quite pure in many bodies, especially in cotton, which
is nothing more than the down of the seeds of the cotton plant.
Now cotton, combined with cold nitric acid, become transformed
into a substance eminently insoluble, combustible, and explosive.
It was first discovered in 1832, by Braconnot, a French chemist,
who called it xyloidine. In 1838 another Frenchman, Pelouze,
investigated its different properties, and finally, in 1846,
Schonbein, professor of chemistry at Bale, proposed its employment
for purposes of war. This powder, now called pyroxyle, or
fulminating cotton, is prepared with great facility by simply
plunging cotton for fifteen minutes in nitric acid, then washing
it in water, then drying it, and it is ready for use."
"Nothing could be more simple," said Morgan.
"Moreover, pyroxyle is unaltered by moisture-- a valuable
property to us, inasmuch as it would take several days to charge
the cannon. It ignites at 170 degrees in place of 240, and its
combustion is so rapid that one may set light to it on the top
of the ordinary powder, without the latter having time to ignite."
"Perfect!" exclaimed the major.
"Only it is more expensive."
"What matter?" cried J. T. Maston.
"Finally, it imparts to projectiles a velocity four times
superior to that of gunpowder. I will even add, that if we mix
it with one-eighth of its own weight of nitrate of potassium,
its expansive force is again considerably augmented."
"Will that be necessary?" asked the major.
"I think not," replied Barbicane. "So, then, in place of
1,600,000 pounds of powder, we shall have but 400,000 pounds of
fulminating cotton; and since we can, without danger, compress
500 pounds of cotton into twenty-seven cubic feet, the whole
quantity will not occupy a height of more than 180 feet within
the bore of the Columbiad. In this way the shot will have more
than 700 feet of bore to traverse under a force of 6,000,000,000
litres of gas before taking its flight toward the moon."
At this juncture J. T. Maston could not repress his emotion; he
flung himself into the arms of his friend with the violence of
a projectile, and Barbicane would have been stove in if he had
not been boom-proof.
This incident terminated the third meeting of the committee.
Barbicane and his bold colleagues, to whom nothing seemed
impossible, had succeeding in solving the complex problems of
projectile, cannon, and powder. Their plan was drawn up, and it
only remained to put it into execution.
"A mere matter of detail, a bagatelle," said J. T. Maston.
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