Saturday, March 21, 2015

Punctuated Equilibrium and Brown Bess

There is a funny quirk about technological progress and living in the 21st century.  We have a unique vantage point—from our perspective the progress seems to be not only continuous, but charging ahead like a stabbed rat.

For most of human history, technological progress was almost nonexistent.  For thousands of years, there were few, if any, improvements.  Then, suddenly, somewhere, someone made a breakthrough.  The wheel, the club, a clay pot or basket—some technological breakthrough occurred that revolutionized civilization.  This new breakthrough would then be followed by another long period of technological stagnation. 

Anthropologists call this process: punctuated equilibrium.  Viewed as a graph, this process would look something like this.

Interestingly, each advance on this time line seems to occur after less time than the previous interval.  Early man wasn't likely to live long enough to see a single such event.  Today, the intervals occur so rapidly they appear to be continuous.  You aren't aware of it, but while you were wasting your time reading this blog, someone just changed the world by inventing multimurphs.  By the time you learn about it, Apple will probably be selling the iMurph.

But this period of multiple rapid changes is actually a relatively recent development—it hasn't been that long since changes were still rare.  Let's look at an example.

Gunpowder weapons reached Europe about 1300 AD and immediately revolutionized warfare—countries that used such weapons tended to win their battles and those who did not didn’t make the history books.  But after gunpowder was introduced, these weapons did not change much for centuries. 

Ian V. Hogg, the noted historian of artillery and all things that go “BANG,” suggested that if one of Edward II’s gunners were lifted from the battle of Crecy in 1346 and dropped into the middle of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he would have soon felt at home, for the level of technology had made only insignificant advances in the interim.

In 1690, Great Britain developed the official Land Pattern Musket.  This was a large, heavy musket kept in the Tower of London where various manufacturers could measure it, examine it, and manufacture exact replicas.  While reliable, this gun could never be described as accurate--it didn't even have sights.  According to British Colonel Hangar, "I do maintain and will prove whenever called upon that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common musket by the person who aimed at him."

Soldiers quickly nicknamed the gun the Brown Bess, either as a corruption of the German phrase "braun buss" or strong gun or (and this is more likely) the British soldier followed a custom as old as warfare itself and named his weapon after a woman.  In common parlance at that time, Brown Bess was a wanton prostitute.

Soldiers loved the gun—it was sturdy, reliable, and long enough to hold a bayonet.  (Despite what you have seen in movies, until the American Civil War, during most battles, more men died of wounds from cutting implements than from gunpowder weapons.)

So Great Britain kept making the guns.  They used them during the War of Austrian Succession, in several wars in India, in the Seven Years Wars (Which lasted nine years and in America was called this the French and Indian War—we do this just to make history difficult.), and at Lexington and Concord.  Since many of the colonists were required to own their own Brown Bess muskets and serve in militias, quite a few of the colonists shot back at the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord with the same weapon. 

England used a metric shit ton of the muskets fighting Napoleon, and after the victory at Waterloo, began selling off a few of the surplus muskets to other countries.  A newly-independent Mexico bought enough of them that Santa Ana used them against Americans at both the Alamo and during the Mexican American War.  When the Marines stormed the "halls of Montezuma,” they were facing troops armed with old Brown Bess muskets.

Eventually (roughly 1840) the venerable Brown Bess was obsolete and was retired—there had been another technological breakthrough.  The last time--as far as I can determine—that a Brown Bess was used in a major battle was the Battle of Shiloh, and I pity the poor infantryman who went off to battle with an antique.

For 150 years, the Brown Bess musket in various forms ruled battlefields everywhere the British Army wandered, and that pretty much means the entire world.  It is probably close to impossible to determine how many men were killed by this weapon.

Remember the concept of punctuated equilibrium?  The length of time from the adoption of Brown Bess to the weapon's retirement is roughly the same period of time from the weapon’s retirement to the development of the Stealth Fighter.

I don’t want to give you nightmares, but the next technological revolution in warfare is probably overdue.


  1. 1 metric shit ton = X troy ounces. Solve for X. Show your work.

  2. Technology, science, politics and plumbing pretty much all follow the stairstep pathway to progress. Thomas Kuhn's landmark (and controversial) book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" demonstrated the almost inevitability that scientific theory will remain stable for long periods, punctuated by sudden, rapid periods of change. The book was controversial because scientists like to think of themselves as open-minded, basing their opinions strictly on evidence. Kuhn's assertion that scientists were quite capable of ignoring data that disproved their pet theories. Kuhn claimed that before a basic theory could change a very large body of data had to be collected that disproved the old idea. Newtonian physics, itself a revolution at the time, held sway for a very long time until anomalies in the data physicists were collecting led a Swiss patent clerk named Einstein to come up with the idea of relativity. Eventually, Einstein's idea was confirmed in a flash of blinding light over the Southwestern desert and over two Japanese cities.
    The orthodox generals took decades to finally come to terms with the idea that Napoleonic maneuvers were obsolete in the face of machine guns, tanks and aircraft. Of course, it wasn't until the butchery left the generals in danger of not having any soldiers left before the powers that be in the military listened to generals like Rommel and Patton and then only because they were wildly successful against the generals who still handled troops like toy soldiers on the playroom floor.
    Even the relatively recent military sport of air strategy has passed through three distinct stages and is in the midst of another that has been tugging at the hems of Air Force general staff doctrinal coattails since the 40s. It started out with planes being used like cavalry horses conducting knightly jousts while others occupied the high ground and spied on the enemy. Eventually, Doolittle managed to get the Air Corps to consider the value of strategic bombing. People like Pete Quesada tried to get the Air Force to commit more resources to close-air support. John Boyd revolutionized air-to-air combat – wrote the book (literally) on air combat and was retired as a colonel. It would never have done for a trouble-maker like Boyd to be made a general. He wasn't orthodox enough. He helped design the incredibly useful F-16, a less expensive aircraft than the F-15, F-111 and other more expensive fighter aircraft, favoring simple, tough, versatile less expensive aircraft in numbers over fewer, vastly more expensive planes.
    Even now, with clear evidence that aircraft like the F-16 and the A10 Warthog do what they do really well, the Air Force is still engaging in fantasy aircraft design that has resulted in the complex and bug-ridden F-35, a plane that, like Goldman Sachs, is too expensive to fail. They're desperate to retire the very un-Air Force like A10 because it doesn't fit the complex, expensive, outdated and flawed model they seem to be stuck with.
    Politicians do the same. After more than a hundred years, political scientists are still trying to make Marxism work despite the fact that virtually every Marxist-inspired experiment that has been attempted has directly resulted in the slaughter of millions of perfectly good human beings. Despite this, universities are absolutely chock full of Marxist professors, teaching impressionable students that socialism is the way we ought to go, despite massive evidence that Marxism is a very bad thing.
    When the "jump" comes when we reach the breaking point that triggers the next political revolution, one can only hope we don't jump too far the other way and wind up with utter chaos or worse for another century.
    One cannot under-estimate the power of the human ego. It's what restrains the true forward progress of technology, science, politics, culture and economics.