Prometheus’s Fire or Pandora’s Box?

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Without doubt, the study of science and technology is right now about as sexy as anyone can imagine, at least when it comes to the education of American Youth.  Yes, indeed, local TV stations play up the “STEM” curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

For all their benefits, it must be noted that science, technology and engineering have also given us grave problems facing the world (human-caused climate change, environmental degradation, weaponry of mass destruction et alia).  It would be nice to think that the some of the efforts of STEM would be to correct these threats.  More likely, STEM will be a way of discovering the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, get full benefit of their talents and increase corporate profit margins (and hang the consequences).

The study of History, by contrast seems to be a step-child again.  At best it becomes a form of entertainment (why open a history book, when you can watch “Turn”?); at worst the past is manipulated and distorted to support political agendas.  General Washington exemplifies both extremes: to many he’s a cartoonish figure replete with wooden teeth, while simultaneously he’s a demigod, sans reproche.

Many people have expressed their dislike of history considering it to be nothing but an amorphous mass of “names and dates”, which seems to be an excuse to deemphasize its study.  Yes, history has names and dates that need to be recalled, but it is ultimately the study of human activity.  All of it, including arts and sciences, material culture and intellectual activity, peace and conflict, progress and regress, good times and bad is what history is all about.

Such fine words butter no parsnips, but does history offer anything useful beyond rote memorization of all those names and dates?  Rather.  Language arts alone ­reading and writing­ are perhaps the most obvious: all those names and dates come with oodles of letters, journals and associated written records.  Studying history also promotes critical thinking by analyzing those documents; using the historical record to go beyond the simple “when, who and what” to the “why” of historic events.

History can support language arts, but is there even an intersection with the STEM curriculum?  Obviously, yes, it really can.

Let’s take the following account of a horrid disaster reported in the Annual Register of 1769:

“On the 28th of August, about eight in the morning, much lightning fell, at Brescia, upon a magazine, in which were about twelve thousand rubbi of fine cannon powder, which was to have been sent to Venice on the 5th of the same month.  This powder instantly took fire; and the explosion was so great, that it overturned about a sixth part of the houses in the town, and, according to the best information we have hitherto been able to receive, buried near 3000 persons under their ruins.  Belonging to the above magazine was a tower built of large stones, which blew up at the same time, and falling like hail upon the churches, houses, and other buildings, shattered them from the very roofs to the cellars…The explosion was so violent, that the strongest fastenings, at 18 miles distance, were forced open: some pieces of stone carried ten miles, and a cannon of twenty five cwt. [hundred weight] driven two miles and a half….”

The most obvious component of STEM here would be mathematics.  After all, we have a quantity of gunpowder that is expressed in an unfamiliar measuring system.  Let’s see: one rubba consisted of 25 libbra or “pounds”.  Not only did measuring systems vary, but the amounts they expressed differed as well.  (Welcome to the 18th Century, folks!)  A libbra varied from about 11 to 14 ounces (or 307 to 389 grams).  So the amount of powder can be figured into more modern weight as:

11 ounces x 25 x 12,000 / 16 ounces avoirdupois equals 206,205 pounds avoirdupois,

or 103.1 tons

[We leave it to the Gentle Reader to figure the amount gunpowder had the libbra been 14 ounces.  Be sure to show your work for full credit.]

Besides the horrendous destruction of lives and property, the enormous explosion launched a cannon two and a half miles.  Said cannon was no pop-gun either weighing in at 25 hundredweight.  How heavy was the gun?  Heck, mathematics comes  to the fore again.  One hundredweight [British] is 112 pounds, twenty five hundredweight is equivalent to 2800 pounds.  That is one honking big chunk of metal to come out of the blue.

Leaving the realm of mathematics, we can check out some of the science involved here.  As mentioned in the article, the disaster was caused by a lightning strike.  Lightning was well-known to humans for millennia, but only a few years before this incident was it found to be a (very powerful) form of electricity.

Whether Benjamin Franklin actually performed his experiment of flying a kite during a thunderstorm or not is not germane here.  The fact remains, he’s the first to have shown lightening to be electricity, and electricity was about as fascinating to educated 18th century people as anything could be.

Some “natural philosophers” ­ the word “scientist” did not yet exist­ experimented with this amazing phenomenon.  Utilizing Leyden jars (rather primitive, but effective) power sources, they found that quite a jolt could be derived.  Several combined were very powerful, and Franklin is credited with dubbing the combination a “battery”, comparing the power of electricity to a battery of artillery.  The name seems to have stuck, and powers many modern-day addictive devices.

As history has been relegated into an entertainment, the science of electricity was a parlor stunt for some.  (Really.)  Using static electricity generators, a demonstrator would “electrify” a boy suspended from a silken rope, and give shocks and attract objects.  (No, really.  I’m not making this up.)  Who says learning can’t be fun?

Electricity was also suspected to be the key to the life force in living things.  Luigi Galvani was dissecting frogs in the 1780’s and when his scalpel touched a brass hook holding some frog’s legs, the muscles contracted.  Galvani thought that he’d discovered “animal electricity”. Alessandro Volta would later prove that it was the interaction of the two metals that created an electric charge, but that didn’t stop Victor Frankenstein from using electricity to revive dead tissue in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel.

It is entirely arguable that some forms of technology and engineering might have saved the situation at Brescia, or at least lessened the damage.  To explode, gunpowder needs to be confined either in a gun barrel, container or building.  If the pressure can be somehow be lessened, say with a roof that is designed to give, a blast would be far less powerful.  Gunpowder mills were specifically designed in that manner, any (inevitable) explosion would be channeled upwards.

However, as the old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and the explosion at Brescia could have been prevented with a bit of 18th century cutting edge technology: lightning rods.  The ubiquitous Benjamin Franklin (along with Henry Cavendish, William Watson and J. Robertson) proposed 1772 to the Royal Society that all powder magazines be protected by lightning rods.  This would have been too late for the poor people of Brescia, but not many months following that catastrophe, the Royal Society was consulted about “securing the cathedral of St. Paul’s from damage by lightening [sic]”.  People were recognizing that a natural danger could be sometimes averted through technological developments.

There is one other very important lesson that students of the STEM curriculum ought to gain from the terrible event at Brescia in 1769: responsibility.  Gunpowder was the most powerful agent in the hands of humans in the 18th Century; its storage should have been done in a safer manner.

“Should have” indicates something regrettable or too late to remedy; “should be” indicates a sense of responsibility for one’s actions before things go awry.   History can and does teach us that there are consequences of our actions.  One can only hope that proponents of STEM will pay attention to lessons from history.

If so, it would be a first for our species.

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