History Snippets: Cast-iron Cannon

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

Below is a cast-iron cannon mounted on a wooden carriage, typical of about the 18th century.

Small carriage cannon

Small carriage cannon Image from Wikipedia Common. Here we see a cast iron cannon on what might be a horse-drawn carriage.

What we don’t see is the mine that produced the iron ore, the foundry that smelted the iron and cast the blank for the cannon, or the factory that machined and finished the cannon and perhaps also cast the lead balls. We don’t see the industry that mined and refined the potassium nitrate, ground the sulfur and charcoal, and mixed the gunpowder.

To actually build such weapons first required learning how to heat large quantities of metal to temperatures earlier cultures could not yet attain.  Tools hard enough to cut and fashion the new metal had to be invented, shaping the parts to a precision for which the tools of measurement didn’t exist in earlier times … One could not simply master precision casting of a cast-iron or bronze barrel with a hollow bore. The bore had to be machined or polished to a sufficient smoothness to prevent the projectile from  sticking and blowing up both cannon and cannoneer.

The chain of productive innovation needed to set all this in motion would take the cooperation of a whole country or group of countries, and this would take centuries, not decades. Earlier city-states could rarely afford to develop such undertakings on their own. It is hard to grasp the full challenge of the required  technology infrastructure at first.

Ironically, countries that could best absorb the cost of large-scale military technology would be those that also excelled in the free trade of goods and services in peacetime. Conquistador-style looting, plunder and civilization-wrecking were essentially a static one-time transfer of  wealth by force, and could carry the enormous overhead of industrialization only so far.

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