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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Getting things a little bit wrong

Defenseless America 
by Hudson Maxim [1915]

This book has been sitting in my 'things to write about' file for a long time. I've included this excerpt from it here because it illustrates something all of you who look forward to decades of existence on this planet in the 21st Century must bear in mind: how impossible it is to predict a future when ideas are set in the past, and when you have no real concept of what influences change.

   This military man, pontificating earnestly about a future of which he could not conceive, is a beautiful example. If I were reading this in 1915, it would have seemed perfectly logical.

   Ironically, if he had published it in 1919 and not 1915, he would not have written many of the things he says here – well, not if he had any sense. Yet his view would have been very persuasive at the start of World War 1.

   The book is also fascinating and revealing about some fundamentals of the American military world view which have changed little in a hundred years, but that's another story.


Aviation makes a strong appeal to the imagination, and this fact, together with errors and misconceptions in the popular mind concerning the use and power of high explosives, has led to many strange predictions and weird conclusions about the destruction which dirigibles and aëroplanes would be capable of doing by dropping bombs from the sky.

Since the advent of aviation, many inventors have directed their energies to aërial bombs and bomb-dropping appliances. There have been, from time to time, fearful forecasts of the destruction of warships, coast fortifications, and large cities; for it was claimed that air-craft would be able to drop explosive bombs capable of wrecking the heaviest battleship and of blowing up coast fortifications and utterly laying waste cities and towns. It was predicted that the aëroplane would be able, with its bombs, to scatter armies like chaff before the whirlwind.

The hopes of those who have believed in such dire destructiveness of bomb-dropping from air-craft have been dashed to the ground, with the bombs they have dropped. Of course, aviators may drop any form of infernal machine which, on exploding, will mangle by-standers with fragments of scrap iron, but the effect must necessarily be very local.


There is probably no one subject about which there is more popular error than concerning the use and destructive effects of high explosives.

An anarchist once attempted to blow up London Bridge with two small sticks of dynamite, and succeeded merely in getting himself into trouble. At another time, a dynamiter entered the Houses of Parliament and exploded ten pounds of dynamite in one of the large corridors, with the result that it only made a hole in the floor and smashed a few windows.  

At Sandy Hook, several years ago, an experiment was tried with two hundred pounds of guncotton exploded against a twelve-inch plate, immediately back of which were placed a cage containing a rooster and a hen, and another cage containing a dog. The guncotton was hung against the plate and detonated. The effect upon the plate was nil. On examination, it was found that the dog and the two fowl had been made rather hard of hearing. That was the only noticeable effect upon the animals.

We all remember the test of the big, eighteen-inch Gathmann gun at Sandy Hook about twelve years ago, which threw a bomb containing six hundred pounds of compressed guncotton that was exploded against the face of a twelve-inch Kruppized plate. The first shot produced no visible effect except a yellow smudge on the face of the plate. It took three shots even to crack the plate and to shift it in its setting.

In competition with the Gathmann gun, a twelve-inch army rifle was fired against another plate of the same size and thickness and mounted in the same manner. The projectile contained only twenty-three pounds of Maximite. Yet, as the projectile penetrated the plate before the Maximite was exploded, a hole was blown through it a yard wide, and it was broken into several pieces.

These tests proved the effectiveness of even a small quantity of high explosive when properly confined, as by explosion after penetration, and the utter ineffectiveness of a large mass of high explosive when not confined or when exploded on the outside of a body.

Bombs carried by an airship and dropped upon the deck of a battleship may damage the superstructure a little, but they can have no material effect upon the ship itself, unless they are made heavy enough and strong enough, with the proper armor-piercing shape, and are dropped from a sufficient height to pierce the deck. Not unless the bomb can be made to penetrate an object before exploding can it effect much destruction.

At Santiago, the Vesuvius, with its pneumatic guns, threw several six-hundred-pound bombs, and exploded them on the Spanish fortifications, but the effect was wholly insignificant.

Several years ago, when the subway was being built, a dynamite magazine accidentally exploded in front of the Murray Hill Hotel. The magazine probably contained at least a ton of dynamite. A lot of windows were broken in the vicinity, some persons were injured, and a multitude badly scared, but the damage done even to the Murray Hill Hotel was comparatively small.

It has been predicted that Germany would send across the Channel a large fleet of airships and blow up British towns with the bombs that her great gas-bags might drop out of the heavens.

Now, at last, the much-vaunted and long-anticipated Zeppelin invasion has come, and what is the result? Four peaceful citizens killed, and about ten thousand dollars' worth of property damage.

Let us suppose that the Germans should send a fleet of a hundred airships to drop bombs upon the city of London, returning to Germany each day for a new supply; and let us suppose that each airship should carry explosives enough to destroy two houses every day, which would be far more than they could actually average. Yet, if this aërial fleet should be able to destroy two hundred houses a day, or say, roughly, sixty thousand houses a year, it would succeed in destroying just about the annual growth of London, for that city has, during the past ten years, built sixty thousand new houses every year.

The dirigible balloon has one signal advantage over the aëroplane in the matter of bomb-dropping. It can both carry bigger bombs and remain stationary and hover while it drops them. With the aëroplane, however, there is necessarily great difficulty in hitting underlying objects, on account of the high speed at which it must travel to sustain flight. In order to float, an aëroplane must travel about thirty miles an hour. Even at this speed, it is moving forward at the rate of forty-four feet a second, and as a bomb travels at the same speed as the aëroplane, except for the retardation of the air, it moves forward forty-four feet the first second, while dropping sixteen feet. The next second the bomb falls sixty-four feet and moves forward forty-four feet, and so on.
[...and on, and on, and on.]

Ah, the profound wisdom of hindsight we gain after a century of improving devices to kill people and blow things up. We're way from done with that yet. Cheer up. We can only get better at it.

Defenseless America is a free download in a variety of formats here. I don't expect a rush for it, but it has its moments.


  1. Yes, but on the other hand Denis, I see from his wiki entry that he was the brother of the guy who invented the Maxim gun - one of the ugliest killing tools ever deployed - and that he lost his hand to an explosion, yet still managed to appear as King Neptune during the first two years of the Miss America Pageant in 1921 and 1922.

    And he is also quoted as a strident anti-smoker, so maybe in some things - before his time?

    ps I think I've left out a comma or two, 'cause I've still got a pocketfull ;)

    1. You've done better research on him than I have [let's admit it - nil in my case!] That's quite a family history.

      The commas look fine to me. No red underlining from this little grammarian.


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