This Is Just Plain Weird: A Sixteenth-Century Bird Bomb

I never expected to keep writing about animal weapons. That was supposed to just be a one-week special feature. But it just seems that everywhere you turn, you see examples of practical or perverse attempts to make animals into weapons of war. This example from The Atlantic‘s Tech blog is mostly on the perverse side.

Folio 137r of the 1584 Feuer Buch features a bird and a dog with flaming packs racing towards a castle. (Go take a look at the UPenn library site. I’ll wait). In a sweet and optimistic gesture the cataloger has described this as “Cat and bird with rocket packs,” but no, those are almost certainly incendiary bombs.

The real story here, though, is not the insanity of early modern Germans strapping bombs onto birds in the hopes of blowing up their enemies. It’s that UPenn has been able to digitize and put up a full copy of the Feuer Buch. My German orthography is bad enough that I can’t really read the ms., but if I’m reading the cataloging data right this is a sixteenth-century copy of the 1420 Feuerwerkbuch, one of the earliest widespread sources for information on European gunpowder production and for the introduction of corning: which turns out to be an incredibly important step in turning firearms from exotic tools into war-winners. (You can read all about it in Bert Hall’s Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics.)

The Atlantic just posts the link to UPenn’s manuscripts collection, but I think a few thanks are in order: to the National Endowment of the Humanities, without whose grants there’s little chance this digitization would have been affordable; to the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image; and to Edgar F. Smith (1854–1928), without whose belief in the importance of the history of chemistry, who knows where UPenn’s Feuer Buch would have ended up.



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