Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/September 1877/Science and War

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RECENT wars have had particular interest for the man of science. If we go back some fifteen or twenty years and consider the different wars which have unfortunately occurred since that time, we shall find connected with each one of them certain features which undoubtedly mark progress in the art of killing and wounding. Some argue—and on very good grounds, no doubt—that the more sharp and terrible warfare is made, the more speedily must it come to an end, and hence look with favor upon the means taken every day to render weapons more destructive and the soldier more cunning in his dangerous trade. We do not propose to discuss this argument, nor to enter at all into any comparison between the wars of our forefathers and those of to-day, but at a crisis like the present we need hardly apologize for bringing before our readers some points illustrating the marked influence of science upon modern warfare.

Starting from the close of the Crimean War, the first in which the electric telegraph was employed, we find ample examples of the assistance furnished to the soldier by scientific research. One instance taken from the war of 1858 is especially interesting. The Austrians held Venice at the time, it may be remembered, and, to protect the harbor, torpedoes were laid down. The torpedoes were fired by electricity, and contained gun-cotton, this being the first instance on record of the employment of electric torpedoes and of the newly-invented nitro-compounds. Nor was this all. The torpedo system devised at Venice by the Austrian engineers had yet another point of scientific interest. A camera-obscura was built overlooking the harbor, and upon the white table of this instrument were reflected the waters of Venice. As the torpedoes were sunk one by one a sentinel in the camera noted the place of their disappearance with a pencil, giving each torpedo a consecutive number. A row-boat in the harbor described a circle around the sunken torpedo, indicating the zone of its destructive power, and the sentinel again, with his pencil, made a corresponding ring upon the camera-table. In the end, therefore, while the harbor itself was apparently free from all obstruction, a very effective means of torpedo-defense was established, the key of which was only to be found in the camera-obscura. The sentinel here had wires in connection with every torpedo, and was in a position to fire any one as soon as he observed—by means of the camera—the presence of a hostile vessel within the limits of any of the circles marked upon his white table.

In the American War of 1860, the electric torpedo, invented but two years before, played a most conspicuous rôle, and formed indeed, with the use of big guns and monitor iron-clads, one of the most important features of the struggle, at any rate from a scientific point of view. The war of 1866, when the Austrians suffered such a terrible defeat at the hands of the Prussians, will long be remembered as a combat between the old muzzle-loading rifle and the breech-loader, in which the latter was victorious. The Franco-German struggle of 1870, again, though marked by the employment of no special arm, if we except the mitrailleuse, was assisted by important applications of science; to wit, the reproduction, by means of photo-lithography, of the French ordnance maps and plans, which were distributed in thousands throughout the German army, and the establishment in France of la poste aérienne to communicate with the besieged garrison of Paris. The regularity with which the mails left Paris par ballon monté must still be fresh in the memories of our readers, the publication of correspondence from the French capital being maintained in our journals during the whole period of the investment. From September 23d to January 28th, when Paris was practically cut off from the rest of the Republic, no less than sixty-four balloons left the city with passengers, mails, and pigeons, and of these only three were lost, while five were captured. The return-post by "homing pigeons" was hardly so regular, but nevertheless half the number of dispatches given in by correspondents at Tours and elsewhere, or in other words 100,000 messages, were by the unflagging energy of the postal authorities carried into the beleaguered capital. The dispatches, most of them as brief as telegrams, were distinctly printed in broad sheets and photographed by the aid of a micro-camera; impressions upon thin, transparent films were then taken and rolled in a quill attached to the tail of the winged messenger which was to bear them into Paris. Arrived at their destination, the tiny photographic films were enlarged again by the camera, and the dispatches, being once more legible, were distributed to the various addresses.

The present Russo-Turkish War cannot well be less interesting than those that have so recently preceded it, and we may especially point out two directions in which fresh examples of scientific warfare will probably manifest themselves—in connection, namely, with the cavalry pioneer and the Whitehead torpedo. Both of these will probably be seen in warfare for the first time, and before many days are past we may hear of their doings in action.

The cavalry pioneer must not be confounded with the Prussian Uhlan who played so conspicuous a part in the last war. The ubiquitous Uhlan, terrible as he was, did not work the injury which some of the Cossacks will have it in their power to inflict if accoutred as pioneers. These are selected from the smartest and most daring troopers, lightly armed and well mounted. In a belt round their waists they carry a few pounds of gun-cotton or dynamite, and with this highly-destructive explosive they may work incalculable harm. A small charge of gun-cotton placed simply upon a rail and fired with a fuse suffices to blow several feet of the iron to a distance of many yards, thus rendering the railway unserviceable on the instant. A trooper may dismount, place a charge at the base of a telegraph pole, fire it, and be in his saddle again within sixty seconds. Wires may thus be cut and communication stopped in the heart of an enemy's country by fearless riders, who have but to draw rein for an instant to effect the mischief, while lines of railway in the neighborhood are entirely at their mercy. Even light bridges and well-built stockades may be thrown down by the violent detonation of compressed gun-cotton, and forest-roads considerably obstructed by trees thrown across, which are never so rapidly felled as when a small charge of this explosive is fired at their roots.

The influence of the Whitehead torpedo, of which we have heard so much of late, will likewise be felt for the first time during the present war. An implement so ingenious in its character that, as Lord Charles Beresford the other day happily remarked, it can do almost anything but talk, is in the possession of both belligerents, and will doubtless be heard of ere long on the Danube and in the Black Sea. These torpedoes are manufactured at Fiume on the Mediterranean, and, like Krupp guns, are to be purchased by any one who chooses to pay for them.

The British Government manufactures its own Whitehead torpedoes in this country, having paid several thousand pounds for the privilege. The machinery inside this torpedo is still a secret, which is strictly maintained by our Government, but the principle of the invention is well known. It is a long, cigar-shaped machine measuring a dozen feet and upward. In the head is a charge of some violent explosive, such as gun-cotton, or dynamite, which explodes as soon as the torpedo strikes an obstacle. The motive power is compressed air, which is forced into the machine by powerful air-pumps, immediately before the torpedo is discharged into the sea, no less than 600 pounds on the square inch being the pressure exerted. The Whitehead is shot from a tube, and moves through the water as straight as a dart, the compressed air working upon a screw in the tail of the machine. The delicate machinery permits the torpedo to swim at any depth below the surface that may be desirable, and it flies straight in the direction it is aimed, at a speed of something like twenty miles an hour. If it fails to strike the foe, then the intelligent apparatus at once rises to the surface, becoming innocuous as it does so, and may in this condition be captured without difficulty. A torpedo of this sort striking the sides of an iron-clad would almost infallibly send her to the bottom, and although it has been proved that a network or crinoline around the ship is capable of retarding the progress of a "fish" of this nature, and exploding the same harmlessly in its toils, it is obviously a very difficult matter thus to protect one's craft. Against heavy torpedoes, indeed, there seems no way of defense at all (the Whitehead generally carries a charge of seventy or eighty pounds, but moored torpedoes may contain a 500-pound charge), and therefore Turkish vessels will have to give Russian ports a wide berth. All must remember how the magnificent fleet of the French was kept at bay by the torpedoes of the Germans in the North Sea in 1870, and the Black Sea ports are no doubt similarly protected. So demoralizing is the dread of the torpedo with sailors apparently, that they will dare anything rather than venture into waters which conceal these cruel foes.

At no other time has there been so much want of unanimity among the great powers of Europe on the subject of ordnance. There are to be found at the present moment cannon of a dozen different descriptions in the gun-parks of European nations, differing from each other not only in respect to their construction, but in the metal of which they are made. So far as small-arms are concerned, we know there is but one opinion; some nations prefer one breech-loader to another, but all agree in the employment of breech-loaders. In the case of cannon, however, it is different. Germany relies upon breech-loading ordnance, while Great Britain has forsaken the system and gone back to muzzle-loaders; Austria makes her guns of bronze, Germany of steel, Russia favors steel and brass, America cast-iron, while England has cannon of steel encompassed with iron, and France weapons of iron girt with steel.

The balance of favor is beyond question with the breech-loader at the present moment. All the new artillery of the Russians and the Turks is of this kind, while the field-guns both of the Germans and Austrians are upon the same system. France has done nothing lately for the regeneration of its ordnance, and there remain but Great Britain and Italy to represent muzzle-loading artillery. But Italy, although she has adopted the British system for very heavy guns, is by no means a confirmed believer in it, and will doubtless hesitate before following our example very far, beset, as she is, with neighbors armed with breech-loaders.

Of all the powers, it is, curiously enough, steady-going Austria which has taken the boldest and most independent course in the matter of artillery. It was but at the end of 1875 that the Austrian War Office decided to adopt the Uchatius cannon for field-artillery, and yet at this moment every artillery regiment of the vast Austro-Hungarian army is armed with the new weapon. Within eighteen months no less than 2,000 of these cannon have been cast and finished, and now the Vienna arsenal is engaged in the manufacture of heavy guns of the same character. Never was a more energetic step taken. A new cannon of some sort was held to be absolutely necessary to uphold the prestige of the army, and a commission having been intrusted with the selection of an arm, pronounced without delay in favor of the scheme brought forward by General von Uchatius. In October, 1874, the first round was fired from a Uchatius gun, and a twelvemonth afterward the sweeping reform which was to introduce an entirely new artillery throughout the Austrian service was decided upon. Government sanctioned an expenditure of £1,800,000 to be spent in two years, and General von Uchatius was directed to give all the assistance in his power toward the fulfillment of the design.

The Uchatius gun is made of so-called steel-bronze. Chilled bronze would be a better name, since Uchatius casts his metal in a chilled, or metal mould, in the same manner, pretty well, as Sir William Palliser produces his famous chilled projectiles. Bronze, as everybody knows, has been a favorite metal with gun-founders from the earliest days, and in the East, especially, magnificent castings of this nature have been produced. About ninety per cent, of copper and ten of tin is the mixture commonly employed in making ordinary bronze, and eight per cent, of tin is the proportion preferred by Uchatius. The difficulty in casting bronze, as those who have any experience know full well, is that of securing homogeneity, soft particles of tin becoming isolated in the mass, and giving rise to the defect known as "tin-pitting." Whether we have lost the secret of bronze-casting, or whether in former times they were more skillful at the work, certain it is that founders of the present day are unable to secure so uniform an alloy as formerly. This was very apparent when some eight or ten years ago our own, Government adopted, for a brief time, bronze artillery. The addition of a small percentage of phosphorus did not mend matters, and the highest authorities on the subject were at a loss to suggest an effective remedy. Our bronze guns, too, had another defect which could not be overcome. After firing the bore became affected, and the weapon, as it was termed, "drooped at the muzzle." These were the two defects indeed that led mainly to the abandonment of the bronze gun in this country, and they are, too, the difficulties which General von Uchatius appears to have overcome. He has got rid of "tin-pitting," and his guns do not "droop at the muzzle."

Uchatius found that by subjecting the alloy in a liquid form to considerable pressure, he was enabled to secure a perfectly homogeneous mass, a result which was also furnished, he discovered, when he had gone a step further, if the molten metal was rapidly cooled. Steel-bronze is apparently made much in the same way as the toughened glass of which we have heard so much lately. After being cast in a mould, the alloy is thrust into a reservoir of oil, heated to a high temperature, so that the metal suddenly cools, but only down to a certain point. Then the casting is withdrawn and allowed to get cold more gradually. A regular and crystalline structure is in this way produced, which has none of the defects of ordinary bronze. It is a moot point whether phosphorus enters into the composition at all. Chemists tell us they can find no trace of it, but this is no absolute proof that a small percentage of the element was not originally contained in the alloy, being burned out after it had done its work of harmonizing the two metals. The inventor is rather reticent on the point, but in any case it is very certain that he produces a uniform and homogeneous alloy of a hard, crystalline nature.

One other expedient Uchatius has recourse to in making his cannon. When he has cast his gun and chilled it, he proceeds to dilate the bore. Wedges of steel, shaped in the form of cones, are forced into the tube of the gun one after another, until the calibre of the weapon has been increased by something like seven or eight per cent. This expansion or dilation of the tube has not only the effect of hardening or steeling the core, but also of rendering the gun more elastic and capable of resisting more effectually the strain put upon it at the moment of firing. The gun, after this process, is in a state of elastic tension, and it is said that there is a pressure from without, inward, equal to that which was exerted to dilate the gun in the first instance; and that this is actually the case can scarcely be doubted, since it is a fact that a section of the gun, before being quite severed, will tear itself loose with considerable violence, and will be found on separation to have partially returned to its former calibre.

So far as practical trials have been conducted with the weapon, the Austrian Government have every reason to be satisfied with the Uchatius gun, which compares favorably with the Krupp steel cannon in the matter of accuracy and durability; while, as regards its cost, it is far cheaper than any other rifled ordnance. A steel field-piece costs upward of £100, even when not protected with rings, while the iron-steel weapon, manufactured in this country, costs about £70 sterling; the steel-bronze cannon of General von Uchatius, on the other hand, are made for £35 apiece.

In construction, the Austrian gun is so similar to that of Herr Krupp, of Essen, that the latter claimed compensation for an infringement of his patent when the manufacture of the Uchatius gun was first commenced. The Essen works, our readers may know, supply not only Germany with steel breech-loaders, but have provided the present belligerents with all their modern artillery. Russia has still many brass cannon on hand, and Turkey a goodly number of Armstrongs, but both powers mainly depend upon their steel Krupps. These stood the German army in such good stead during the last war that their reputation is firmly established. They are of crucible steel, and the breech, instead of being upon a hinge, or in the form of a block, moves round in a D-shaped socket, the escape of gas being further prevented by rings of phosphor-copper. The manner in which the ordnance of this country is constructed is sufficiently familiar to our readers. A tube of steel is encompassed by jackets of wrought-iron, and in this way the toughness of the latter is combined with the hardness of the former. All our guns, as we have said, load at the muzzle, while those of Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Turkey, are breech-loaders. Italy, in the case of the 100-ton guns with which she intends to arm her two stupendous turret-vessels, the Duilio and Dandolo, has adopted our method of construction, except that she employs smooth, instead of studded, projectiles. With the employment of a gas-check at the base of the shot to prevent windage and so secure the full force of the exploding charge, the use of studs in a shot appears to be unnecessary, sufficient spin being imparted to the projectile by the soft metal of the gas-check before named, which causes the shot to rotate after the manner of a Snider bullet. So satisfactory, indeed, were the Italian trials of these projectiles last year that it is by no means improbable that we, too, may give up the use of studded shot.

As to the comparative value of breech-loaders and muzzle-loaders, we shall not offer an opinion. No doubt a muzzle-loader is the stronger weapon, because its breech is solid; but our cousins, the Germans, urge very justly that, since their guns do not burst, they are quite strong enough. Advocates of the muzzle-loading system argue again that their weapon is more simple in construction, and for this reason is to be preferred; but on the other hand the sponging and loading of a gun is more easy to effect if it opens at the breech. Indeed, in the case of very heavy guns located in a casemate or on board ship, the Germans reproach us with the assertion that we must needs have recourse to all sorts of complicated and awkward machinery in loading, while in their case a simple pulley or crane is all that is necessary. Either, say they, we must expose our gunners through the open port when loading, or, as in the case of the Thunderer, rely blindly on hydraulic apparatus to work the guns for us. So stands the question: perhaps the present war will bring us a solution of it.—Nature.