I collect old high school social studies and science textbooks. Few journals can more accurately depict a time period than these. As an example, when Madeleine Albright described waiting out the Blitzkreig as a child in a London basement, she expressed little chance of surviving a near-direct hit due to the many underground pipes exposed in their shelter.
Steam was cited as the worst latent killer should the pipes rupture. When I got home, I dove into my collection. There I found a diagram of London’s underground utilities in Popular Science’s Mechanical Encyclopedia, 1941. Talk about a “direct hit”– I couldn’t have nailed it any better. Young Madeleine had everything BUT steam to worry about. Consider compressed air and pressurized hydraulic oil at 700 P.S.I.
How thoughtful it was for the city to provide these resources where one could plug their hydraulic wood splitter into a coupler in a back alley and split wood without the engine noise. Moreover, one could inflate a soft tire at selected street corners. In addition, there were four water mains, four gas mains and two high-voltage lines. Exposure to these utilities could indeed be fatal, along with a “foul sewer” adding insult to injury.
When I decided to explore the smelting and casting of metals, I began with “Our Industrial World” by J. Russel Smith, Ph.D, Sc.D, issued locally to one Ray Mayhew somewhere between 1934 and 1942. The book chooses to ignore the events just prior to its final copyright date, as a pleasant pre-war visit to study Japanese agriculture is included. On the book’s cover, factories and refineries proudly release copious clouds of smoke. Pollution meant prosperity.
My sudden interest in smelting and casting came about in response to a story surrounding a certain shotgun that I’m working on. This 12-gauge shotgun started life as a muzzle-loading French military rifle. The French army later changed these rifles to breech-loaders through the use of the Snider breech, an American invention. The advantage was faster reloading. The cartridge, I’m told, resembled an anti-tank round being in excess of 50 caliber.
Now, about the time that the French had about half of their rifles converted, and cartridges were replacing powder and lead as standard government issue ammunition, France’s goose-stepping neighbors to the Northeast possibly took notice. In 1870, the Franco-German war erupted (AKA the Franco-Prussian War, as Prussia was the dominant state of the German Reich).
Production of the Snider breech had to go underground, out of sight of the German occupation army. It’s an interesting history and should make rifles made under these conditions extremely valuable. The problem is that nobody believes it. Skeptics ask, “How were the French able to hide the smoke, flame and drifting sparks associated with the casting of metal?”
Indeed, under precise German scrutiny, this would seem impossible.
J. Russel Smith and Our Industrial World was quick to explain in a chapter subtitled Primitive Iron – But Good. Smith takes us to an African village around 1930. There, “two negroes” squat near a charcoal fire, actuating goatskin bellows with their feet thus keeping a steady stream of air on the fire. Using a rich ore, this method produced iron, which – according to Smith – “was as good as that which any furnace in Pittsburgh makes today.” I presume these villagers were using this iron to make spearpoints and arrowheads rather than crankshafts and pistons – this is Africa, not Cuba.
Anyway, there’s the answer to my question; charcoal and small operations that don’t require a furnace and, thus are less likely to attract attention. Smelting of iron ore would require temperatures in excess of 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit as well as time spent mining – an activity unlikely to escape the notice of the German occupiers. Brass and its cousin bronze have lower melting temperatures, 1,710 and 1,665 degrees, respectively.
The French had ready access to these materials in the form of church bells, which they melted down and cast into Snider breeches. Therefore, those rifles found to have a brass or bronze breech were converted from muzzleloaders under siege conditions in 1870-71. Those with iron breeches were converted from muzzleloaders in relatively peaceful times when French iron furnaces blazed away.
These guns were declared obsolete in favor of the bolt-action 8mm LaBelle. These old Snider breeched guns were sold as surplus to an enterprising Belgian manufacturer who bored them out to 12-gauge and sold them to the sporting market as the Zulu shotgun. It’s said that Zulu was the most exotic name he could come up with.
So, the takeaway is that we can smelt iron and copper (Uranium if you’re adventurous) anywhere ore is available, which is just about anywhere. I remember my dad trying to invent cubic zirconium in a hole in our yard. The carbon in his compression device, for some reason, didn’t get the memo, so he missed the boat on that one. Still, with the intense heat of an acetylene torch, he accidentally smelted a small batch of copper from that rich blue-stained Jersey shale.
Of course, a furnace is more practical if we’re intent on producing a commercially viable quantity of metals.
I was skeptical of the Bible’s account of the three Hebrew lads in the Book of Daniel. I WANTED to believe, but a few things just didn’t add up. The deal was that anyone who didn’t bow down to the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up would be thrown into the fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:3-7)
“Right.” I reasoned. “So this king keeps a fiery furnace going just in case a few boys step out of line?” I don’t think so. Did the furnace have another purpose, or was it erected specifically for this purpose? The Bible doesn’t say, but the existence of the image of gold would imply smelting capability.
Moreover, in 2 Kings we see Nebuchadnezzar hauling all the brass (KJV) from Jerusalem (Some translations say “copper,” but since the difference is only a minute quantity of zinc, they can both be reasonably accurate). Suffice it to say that Nebuchadnezzar was a serious “metalhead,” which might help to explain why he was so proud of that golden image.
The Book of Daniel covers from 613 to 591 BC (Remember to count BC years backward). By then, Syria and Palestine had been in their official Iron Age for over 800 years. Egyptians had been making copper alloys and smelting gold and silver for over 3,000 years. Iron had been produced in Greece for almost 400 years. But the real bee in Nebuchadnezzar’s bonnet was that steel had been produced in the Caucasus for almost 300 years. Proud Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t one to be left behind.
His furnace had to be very large for four men to be walking about in its firebox.
So, why did Nebuchadnezzar order the furnace to be heated up seven times more than usual? He was known to fly into a terrible rage with some regularity and thus become totally unreasonable – why not 10 times hotter or 20? Did he somehow know that the furnace could withstand such heat? Did he have it cranked up to that temperature previously? Oh well, they’re always using the number seven in the Bible; maybe the whole story is somehow “symbolic.” This theory sustained me for years.
These old furnaces were dependent on tall, massive chimneys in order to function. These chimneys must be kept heated because such heat produces a strong updraft. If the chimney cools, the draft is lost. In cool and rainy weather, it might not be regained for weeks or months. To maintain heat and thus draft in the chimney, a maintenance fire is allowed to burn continuously when the furnace is not in actual use.
I ask the reader’s indulgence here. I have no way of knowing the temperature of such a maintenance fire, so am guessing that the “usual” temperature of an inactive furnace to be around 400 degrees. Okay, seven times 400 degrees equals 2,800 degrees – just a few degrees above the melting point of steel.
Well, whataya know…anyway, I’m convinced on both accounts.
Note: this gun, with its brass church bell breech, is looking for a new home.