Saturday, July 6, 2013

Wouldn't a Bonfire Be Easier?

The black dragon lobbed over an egg-shaped thing fully the size of a peck measure it was.  And it burst, and a dragon flew out with peals of thunder rolling.  In the air it was like a blazing and flashing fire.  The first bang was like the dividing of chaos in two, as it mountains and rivers were all turned upside down...
Chiang Hsien, 1431.  The Jade Box Collection.

It is the day after Independence Day.  The barbecue grill is cold, the beer is gone, and spent fireworks litter the yard.  While we still struggle to digest the massive amount of undercooked beef we consumed, it is time for a little introspection.

Assuming that you still have both eyes to read this, you are probably not one of the 6300 Americans who went to an emergency room yesterday with a fireworks related injury.  A large portion of those fireworks injuries were probably due to the beer.  The more beer you drink, the more skilled you believe you are with fireworks.  When it comes to sex, karaoke, and fireworks--beer lies.

Somehow, the birth of our nation has always been tied to fireworks.  Consider what John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about celebrating the birth of our nation:

[The day] "will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Adams got a lot of that correct--the parades, the guns, the illuminations, etc.  All he forgot to mention was barbecue, beer, and the picky little detail of the date.  Adams wrote the above about July 2--the date the Continental Congress voted to approve the resolution for independence.  July 4 was the date the congress accepted the declaration written by Thomas Jefferson.

Americans may be celebrating the wrong date, but we are certainly doing it in style.  Last year, Americans used over two HUNDRED MILLION pounds of gunpowder, just for fireworks--that's not even counting the gunpowder we used to shoot each other.  And a hell of a lot of it was purchased from...China.  That's right, we celebrate the most American of holidays with Chinese fireworks.  If we are going to use all this gunpowder, maybe we should learn something about it.

Gunpowder, of course, was invented in China.  It was an accidental invasion--the Chinese doctor was experimenting with medicine when he stumbled upon the formula.  History does not record his name, but it does mention that his house burned down.  Rapidly. 

Gunpowder is a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter.  The crucial ingredient is the saltpeter.  If the mixture contains a fair amount of saltpeter it will burn.  If the concentration is 75%, when it burns it will produce 3000 times its volume in gas.  That much gas in a closed container is called an explosion.  That much gas in a large room is called Congress.

(Please don't take this as an encouragement to start playing at medieval alchemy in your basement.  There are only two kinds of people who play with gunpowder.  The moron who has already hurt himself and others or the moron who is about to.  It's no joke.)

Sulfur has been known since biblical times, it is not that difficult to identify, nor is it hard to collect and purify.  It can easily be ground into a fine powder.  Nor is charcoal exactly hard to find.  It turns out that several kinds of wood work well:  willow, alder, and grape vines were widely used.  In China, adding charred grasshoppers was believed to give the powder "liveliness."

Now we need saltpeter.  The best natural place was a hot climate that encouraged natural decomposition and a long dry period that allowed nitrates to leach to the surface.  In China, it wasn't hard to find places like that, but in Europe, you had to find a different source.

It was the 1300's when the knowledge of gunpowder reached Europe.  Saltpeter forms naturally in smelly, rank, damp, and decomposing areas.  This describes all of Europe in 1300 and many public places in France today.  Saltpeter formed naturally in privies, stables, and tombs.  It was common in cesspools, old manure piles, and outhouses. 

In a cave near Moscow, where large numbers of soldiers had been dumped in piles, a rather macabre form of recycling was practiced.  The decomposition produced saltpeter, which was turned into gunpowder, which was then used to kill more soldiers, who presumably could be dumped in the cave.  Any day now, Putin will claim that Russia invented sustainability.

If none of these olfactory delights produced enough saltpeter, you could just cook it.  The recipe calls for human feces, urine from people who drank wine or beer (it was widely believed the best urine came from priests), horse shit, and a lot of lime.  This witches brew had to stored indoors out of the rain for about a year and the concoction had to be stirred once a week.  For every hundred pounds of this delightful sludge, you would eventually harvest half a pound of good saltpeter.  (For a Bomb, James Bomb, it is shaken not stirred.)

After the discovery of gunpowder, it took less than a single century for the Chinese to begin making fireworks.  Firecrackers and small bombs were made first, then small propellant charges were added to arrows.  Before long, stronger charges were self-propelled, the arrow was unnecessary.  After that, it was just a steady growth in size, range, and destructive power. 

As difficult as all of this is, it was remarkable that the use of gunpowder didn't die out.  Seems like peace would have been a lot less trouble and it had to smell better.  I understand the impulse--I like fireworks.  Humans glory in destruction.  We instinctively love fire, thunderstorms, loud noises and a good all-around mess.  Gunpowder gives us all of this at the same time.  But, maybe, it is past time to move beyond all this.

Let's just blame it all on the Chinese.  Or maybe bamboo.  It turns out that if you put a single segment of green bamboo in a hot fire, when the air enclosed suddenly escapes, it will produce a loud bang.   (The first firecracker was probably gunpowder stuffed into bamboo.)  By the thirteenth century, even before gunpowder, Chinese New Year was about as noisy as it is today.

Last year, we celebrated an American holiday with $227 million in Chinese fireworks.  Next year, why don't we just buy bamboo?

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