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Chapter X: One Enemy v. Twenty-Five Millions of Friends
The American public took a lively interest in the smallest
details of the enterprise of the Gun Club. It followed day by
day the discussion of the committee. The most simple
preparations for the great experiment, the questions of figures
which it involved, the mechanical difficulties to be resolved--
in one word, the entire plan of work-- roused the popular
excitement to the highest pitch.
The purely scientific attraction was suddenly intensified by the
We have seen what legions of admirers and friends Barbicane's
project had rallied round its author. There was, however,
one single individual alone in all the States of the Union who
protested against the attempt of the Gun Club. He attacked it
furiously on every opportunity, and human nature is such that
Barbicane felt more keenly the opposition of that one man than
he did the applause of all the others. He was well aware of the
motive of this antipathy, the origin of this solitary enmity,
the cause of its personality and old standing, and in what
rivalry of self-love it had its rise.
This persevering enemy the president of the Gun Club had never seen.
Fortunate that it was so, for a meeting between the two men would
certainly have been attended with serious consequences. This rival
was a man of science, like Barbicane himself, of a fiery, daring,
and violent disposition; a pure Yankee. His name was Captain
Nicholl; he lived at Philadelphia.
Most people are aware of the curious struggle which arose during
the Federal war between the guns and armor of iron-plated ships.
The result was the entire reconstruction of the navy of both the
continents; as the one grew heavier, the other became thicker
in proportion. The Merrimac, the Monitor, the Tennessee, the
Weehawken discharged enormous projectiles themselves, after
having been armor-clad against the projectiles of others. In fact
they did to others that which they would not they should do to them--
that grand principle of immortality upon which rests the whole art
Now if Barbicane was a great founder of shot, Nicholl was a
great forger of plates; the one cast night and day at Baltimore,
the other forged day and night at Philadelphia. As soon as ever
Barbicane invented a new shot, Nicholl invented a new plate;
each followed a current of ideas essentially opposed to the other.
Happily for these citizens, so useful to their country, a distance
of from fifty to sixty miles separated them from one another, and
they had never yet met. Which of these two inventors had the
advantage over the other it was difficult to decide from the
results obtained. By last accounts, however, it would seem that
the armor-plate would in the end have to give way to the shot;
nevertheless, there were competent judges who had their doubts
on the point.
At the last experiment the cylindro-conical projectiles of
Barbicane stuck like so many pins in the Nicholl plates.
On that day the Philadelphia iron-forger then believed himself
victorious, and could not evince contempt enough for his rival;
but when the other afterward substituted for conical shot simple
600-pound shells, at very moderate velocity, the captain was
obliged to give in. In fact, these projectiles knocked his best
metal plate to shivers.
Matters were at this stage, and victory seemed to rest with the
shot, when the war came to an end on the very day when Nicholl
had completed a new armor-plate of wrought steel. It was a
masterpiece of its kind, and bid defiance to all the projectiles
of the world. The captain had it conveyed to the Polygon at
Washington, challenging the president of the Gun Club to break it.
Barbicane, peace having been declared, declined to try the experiment.
Nicholl, now furious, offered to expose his plate to the shock
of any shot, solid, hollow, round, or conical. Refused by the
president, who did not choose to compromise his last success.
Nicholl, disgusted by this obstinacy, tried to tempt Barbicane
by offering him every chance. He proposed to fix the plate
within two hundred yards of the gun. Barbicane still obstinate
in refusal. A hundred yards? Not even seventy-five!
"At fifty then!" roared the captain through the newspapers.
"At twenty-five yards! and I'll stand behind!"
Barbicane returned for answer that, even if Captain Nicholl
would be so good as to stand in front, he would not fire any more.
Nicholl could not contain himself at this reply; threw out hints
of cowardice; that a man who refused to fire a cannon-shot was
pretty near being afraid of it; that artillerists who fight at
six miles distance are substituting mathematical formulae for
To these insinuations Barbicane returned no answer; perhaps he
never heard of them, so absorbed was he in the calculations for
his great enterprise.
When his famous communication was made to the Gun Club, the
captain's wrath passed all bounds; with his intense jealousy was
mingled a feeling of absolute impotence. How was he to invent
anything to beat this 900-feet Columbiad? What armor-plate
could ever resist a projectile of 30,000 pounds weight?
Overwhelmed at first under this violent shock, he by and by
recovered himself, and resolved to crush the proposal by weight
of his arguments.
He then violently attacked the labors of the Gun Club, published
a number of letters in the newspapers, endeavored to prove Barbicane
ignorant of the first principles of gunnery. He maintained that
it was absolutely impossible to impress upon any body whatever
a velocity of 12,000 yards per second; that even with such a
velocity a projectile of such a weight could not transcend the
limits of the earth's atmosphere. Further still, even regarding
the velocity to be acquired, and granting it to be sufficient,
the shell could not resist the pressure of the gas developed by
the ignition of 1,600,000 pounds of powder; and supposing it to
resist that pressure, it would be less able to support that
temperature; it would melt on quitting the Columbiad, and fall
back in a red-hot shower upon the heads of the imprudent spectators.
Barbicane continued his work without regarding these attacks.
Nicholl then took up the question in its other aspects. Without
touching upon its uselessness in all points of view, he regarded
the experiment as fraught with extreme danger, both to the
citizens, who might sanction by their presence so reprehensible
a spectacle, and also to the towns in the neighborhood of this
deplorable cannon. He also observed that if the projectile did
not succeed in reaching its destination (a result absolutely
impossible), it must inevitably fall back upon the earth, and
that the shock of such a mass, multiplied by the square of its
velocity, would seriously endanger every point of the globe.
Under the circumstances, therefore, and without interfering with
the rights of free citizens, it was a case for the intervention
of Government, which ought not to endanger the safety of all for
the pleasure of one individual.
In spite of all his arguments, however, Captain Nicholl
remained alone in his opinion. Nobody listened to him, and he
did not succeed in alienating a single admirer from the
president of the Gun Club. The latter did not even take the
pains to refute the arguments of his rival.
Nicholl, driven into his last entrenchments, and not able to
fight personally in the cause, resolved to fight with money.
He published, therefore, in the Richmond Inquirer a series of
wagers, conceived in these terms, and on an increasing scale:
No. 1 ($1,000).-- That the necessary funds for the experiment
of the Gun Club will not be forthcoming.
No. 2 ($2,000).-- That the operation of casting a cannon of 900
feet is impracticable, and cannot possibly succeed.
No. 3 ($3,000).-- That is it impossible to load the Columbiad,
and that the pyroxyle will take fire spontaneously under the
pressure of the projectile.
No. 4 ($4,000).-- That the Columbiad will burst at the first fire.
No. 5 ($5,000).-- That the shot will not travel farther than six miles,
and that it will fall back again a few seconds after its discharge.
It was an important sum, therefore, which the captain risked in
his invincible obstinacy. He had no less than $15,000 at stake.
Notwithstanding the importance of the challenge, on the 19th of
May he received a sealed packet containing the following
superbly laconic reply:
"BALTIMORE, October 19.
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