The Let's Play Archive

Civilization 4

by Zoolooman

Part 19

Since I'm tired of not posting an update, I'm going to post this relatively short one and then work on a longer one to follow it. And trust me, there is a reason for a longer update. You'll see. :]

We seem to have a compulsion these days to bury time capsules in order to give those people living in the next century or so some idea of what we are like. I have prepared one of my own. I have placed some rather large samples of dynamite, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin. My time capsule is set to go off in the year 3000. It will show them what we are really like. -- Alfred Hitchcock

Following the infamous death of General Fenia, a minor Russian supply officer by the name of Ivan Fedorov took in interest in the potential use of battlefield explosives. His initial vision involved giant iron barrels packed with fireworks and thrown into cities by catapults, but after conducting a few experiments in his spare time, he discovered that the existing mixture produced inconsistent, weak explosions, and the powder tended to seperate over time into its constituent parts.

The latter problem slowly became his greatest concern. In his off hours he browsed the Imperial Archives at Beijing, and after reading through several dozen alchemical documents, he discovered that all attempts to produce a superior explosive had been hampered by the mix's eventual decomposition. The three components--saltpeter, softwood charcoal, and sulfur--simply wouldn't stick together for any extended period of time, especially if the explosive powder was being transported.

Until he could find a way to preserve the mixture, he couldn't possibly test the ratio of components in order to discover the optimal mix. His first solutions were ineffective: egg whites permanently cemented the components as the eggs dried, but they were prohibitively expensive and burned far less readily; while a block glued together with water and pressure was often clumpy and produced long, weak explosions. Having exhausted his creativity, Fedorov decided to pass the torch. He wrote an essay detailing his efforts and pleading with future readers to find a method of consistently mixing explosive powder in a way that prevented it from sifting apart. Then, and only then, could one find out how much power was locked away in chemistry.

Or so he suspected. Human ingenuity is an amazing thing.

The Last Great Invention of Archimedes

Despite his presence at the Last Speech of Gustav Specht, Archimedes had been spared from exile. Lenin considered him a "national asset." However, because Archimedes represented a political risk, the regent took Archimedes's family and placed them under house arrest on the palace grounds.

For several years, Archimedes passed the time by writing political letters and tutoring his two sons. He wasn't allowed to mail his letters, but as he worked on the fourth-generation printing press (with drums that sped up the printing process and automated the production of multiple copies), he encrypted his messages with a very simple cipher and hid them in the ornamentation of the printing press prototype. Since the prototype would eventually reach the Great Library, he hoped to secretly warn the struggling liberal faction that the regent would never accept any of their constitutions and that their best hope was in a popular revolution.

Unfortunately, Archimedes had confided his plans to his wife, Asma, and she was in the grip of Lenin. The regent had told her that he'd kill her children if she did not report any suspicious behavior from her husband. If she had been a subversive, she would have realized that the regent approached her because he had no other way of spying on Archimedes except through her, which meant that she could lie to Lenin and nobody would be the wiser; but she feared for the lives of her two sons and apprehended Lenin as a semi-omniscient figure. She willingly told the regent about Archimedes's cipher strategy, and when the fourth generation press was broken down to be shipped, most of the ornamentation was "lost."

Archimedes was no fool. He immediately understood that there are no coincidences in politics. He had been betrayed by someone in his inner circle, and after an afternoon of interviewing his family, his wife confessed to the crime. Archimedes was shaken, and after cursing Asma for crippling the advancement of liberalism, he retreated to his personal study for a day and a half. Concerning that period of isolation, Archimedes wrote:


I wanted to die. I wanted to kill Asma. Most of all, I wanted the world to resolve itself while I turned towards simpler problems. I read through a month of engineering letters from the Great Library and tried to forget why I was crying.

I didn't sleep for two days, but during the second day, I became so thirsty that I could no longer remain in seclusion. I left my study and made for the dining room. Asma was nowhere to be found, but she'd left out a fresh pitcher of water spiced with sliced oranges. I picked out the slices of orange, ate them, and then drank the water.

I was refreshed. Even now, Asma had prepared for my needs. I realized that I still loved her and would keep her, but I resolved to never trust her again with political secrets. If liberalism was to survive and if my family was to survive, then I would have to work alone.

For several weeks, Archimedes exuded the airs of recovery and led his wife to believe that he had given up on the dream of liberalism and had accepted his role as a father and state inventor. In truth, he was simply searching for a new method. Eventually, he found what he was looking for. While sorting through his letters from the Great Library, he came across Fedorov's essay, "Battlefield Fireworks." Archimedes resolved to make it the new weapon of liberalism.


The Chinese had attempted to use explosive rockets in ancient battles, but the weapons had proved ineffective.

If Lenin had kept a tighter leash on Archimedes, things might have gone differently for his regime. As it was, he let Archimedes have whatever materials he requested, because in that time and place, the concept of an assassin was a highly trained suicide warrior designed to eliminate key targets. Nobody yet imagined that technology itself could kill.

With the regent paying the bill, Archimedes bought hundreds of pounds of saltpeter, various charcoals, and various sulfurs of differing purities. Then he began to test the quality of the mix.

Unlike Fedorov, Archimedes believed that there was no need to produce a reliable mixing method if one already knew the optimal ratio of components. You could simply carry the ingredients in seperate pouches, mix them in your explosive container, and set off the entire thing before it had a chance to settle out. Also unlike Fedorov, Archimedes believed that the optimal mix could be discovered without having a reliable mixing method. His reasoning was simple: if three ingredients mixed together cause an explosion, then it must be a property of each ingredient that causes the explosion. Hence, if those properties are known, then you can deduce how much of the materials must be mixed in order to optimize the explosion.

Saltpeter was the easiest ingredient to understand. For centuries it had been collected as a impure white powder along the draining ditches of raised compost heaps. However, in China, a method for purification had been discovered. By digging up the edges of a drainage ditch, washing the soil with water, and letting the water dry in a metal pan, one could reap thick saltpeter crystals from the top of a thin layer of silt. These crystals could then be ground into the saltpeter powder and used as an accelerant when starting a dry fire.

Obviously, the role of saltpeter in the explosive was to accelerate the burning of the charcoal and sulfur. Therefore, Archimedes assumed that it was the most important ingredient--if there was too little, the charcoal would burn rather than explode, and if there was too much, most of the saltpeter would suffocate the ignition of the rest of the explosive.

His initial mix was equal parts saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur. Though it burned hot, it was nowhere near explosive. He began tweaking the mix by adding more parts saltpeter for every one parts sulfur and charcoal, and with every test, the mixture grew more explosive.

At six parts saltpeter to every one parts sulfur and one parts charcoal, Archimedes detonated his ceramic mortar and cut his hands. After a week of recovery, he began using a metal pan and strands from a Chinese fire rope to detonate his mixtures.

At 7 parts and 8 parts saltpeter to every one parts sulfur and one parts charcoal, Archimedes discovered a problem. Though his explosions had a lot of power, they continued to be unreliable. He could not identify a problem with his hand-mixing method or his volume measurements, so he turned to the only remaining factor and studied the ingredients. Were there any differences between batches?

He looked at the colors, the tastes, the textures, the sizes of the grains in the powders; he poured equal volumes and dropped them in an acid and observed their reactions. He was looking for a difference between one bag of saltpeter and the next; between two chunks of charcoal; between one sulfurous stone and another.

After four months of rigorous testing, he found an unexpected difference. He weighed the volumes of ingredients, and discovered that one parts saltpeter from one bag didn't necessarily have the same weight as one parts saltpeter from another bag. In other words, though the powders looked the same and reacted the same, they must have been ground into different shapes on some very small scale, because one volume of one powder did not contain as much powder as another equal volume.

Afterwards, he resumed his experiments with parts measured by weight, and he zeroed in on the most powerful detonation. At seven and three-fourths parts saltpeter to one parts charcoal and one parts sulfur, the pan would flip off of the table after ignition. Any more saltpeter, and the explosion would be muffled under a layer of white powder.

The second stage of his experiments was only one step up from the first. After mixing the powder, he flipped the pan over and let the fire rope ignite the powder under it. As expected, the pan shot up in the air like a rocket, even flying so fast as to damage the plastering along the ceiling of his laboratory.

For the first time in history, someone had perfected the mix for black powder.

Aside posted:

One of history's great turning points has arrived. Now that I have gunpowder, the future of warfare opens ahead of me like a long burning road.

I can build musketmen, a mediocre smoothbore era weapon that is less effective than knights but more effective than bows of various kinds; and I can someday build Cossacks, the replacement for knights and the ultimate incarnation in the history of the military horse. Furthermore, the technologies of chemistry and rifling are open to me, both of which will lead to major advances in warfare.

In most games, it's not necessary to research gunpowder so early. However, I want access to frigates, cannons, grenadiers and Cossacks as soon as possible. Hence, I'm speeding through the Renaissance military techs and leapfrogging towards the Industrial era.

Archimedes drew several designs for black powder weapons, but only two were of any real use: one was a paper ball filled with powder and chunks of slag and lit by a fuse made of Chinese fire rope (fire rope was a cotton weave soaked in a diluted solution of saltpeter and water and then removed and left to dry); and the other was a tube made of cast bronze (which was tougher than iron), loaded with powder, and lit with a torch.

Considering the prohibitive cost of preparing the paper bomb (let alone the large iron barrel-bomb envisioned by Federov), he selected the second concept as his primary method for using the powder on the battlefield. Inspired by the way the pan flew after being struck by a contained detonation, he cast a foot-long tube out of bronze, plugged one end with an iron screw-cap, latched the entire thing onto a y-fork for stability, drilled a hole in the side of the tube, and started firing chunks of slag out of the tube.

The method was simple. He would mix a batch of the powder on the spot, pour a third of the mixture down the tube, drop a chunk of slag in after it, pack the entire thing down with a wooden dowel, and use the torch to set the powder off through the "touch hole" he'd drilled in the side of the bronze tube. If the slag didn't break apart, it could punch a hole in an oak tabletop. That was easily more dangerous than an arrow, though it would be very hard to load or aim.

The descendant of Archimedes's design would be later known as the "gonne" or "hand cannon."

After carefully preparing his designs and submitting them to the Great Library, he prepared his tools for an exhibition at the palace. Lenin and two young professional soldiers--people who had been trained at the University of Moscow for war--attended the demonstration.

At first, Archimedes prepared and fired the weapon several times at an oak board. The first shot disintegrated in the barrel, and the second shot only winged the board, but the third through fifth shots impacted in a spray of splinters, and everyone on hand was duly impressed with the destructive power of black powder projectiles. However, the young professionals were skeptical, and managed to elicit a list of weaknesses from Archimedes:

1. Black powder would not ignite if it was damp.
2. The weapon stank, the torch and the smoke would give away the position of the firer, and it was less accurate than a bow.
3. It fired far slower than a trained longbowman or shortbowman.
4. Any use would require the massive purchase of sulfur and saltpeter, both of which were somewhat expensive.

In short, after hearing this speech, they told Lenin that they believed the "gonne" would never find a significant place on a battlefield ruled by bows, armor, and horses.

Archimedes had been well aware of all these deficiencies. Nonetheless, if the last shot did what he hoped, then the entire demonstration would have been a great success.

It was a great success. Everything went according to plan.

Archimedes loaded a sixth portion of powder into the cannon, added the chunk of slag, and before he packed it in with the dowel, he added a cork of softwood to the tube and hammered it into place. When the generals asked why he was having difficulty packing the powder, he explained that this piece of slag was a bit misshapened and lodged in the barrel. Once the cork was in place, he turned to Lenin and offered to let the regent fire the next round. Because Lenin was at ease and impressed with the novelty of the new weapon, he happilly accepted Archimedes's offer and took the torch from the aging engineer.

Archimedes ran over and set up the target, and then he stood well to the side of the gonne. He told Lenin to put the torch to the powder, and he covered his ears.

Archimedes had been inspired by his exploding mortar and pestel. He had witnessed the improved power of a contained explosion. He had tested a grenade made from paper and shrapnel. He knew the tensile strength of bronze, and he guessed that it was a lot lower than the power behind incendiary chemistry.

Lenin touched the torch to the hole, and in a ferocious crack, his right hand vanished in a sooty cloud seeded with bronze debris. He let out one long keening squeal and held his right arm to his chest. Archimedes didn't have to fake his shock: he saw fragments of Lenin's pinky dangling from the remaining half of a palm. The professional soldiers ran over to the regent to inspect his injury, but paused as the regent's scream became a drowner's gurgle, and bloody foam bubbled up out of his throat.

Lenin died shortly after blood filled his collapsed right lung. Archimedes only hoped that the liberals would take advantage of this accident before the Tsar's advisors finished fighting for control of the Russian Empire.

So far...

The next update will cover 1370 and onwards, since more big stuff is coming.