Weird Science


I remember exactly when my fascination with weird science began. I was about eleven, and browsing in my local hobby shop for a new model kit to build. Naturally, it had to be a WWII aircraft (my previous post Airpulp covers my obsession with vintage aviation), but I was starting to wonder if I’d seen it all and built it all. Then there it was.

The Blohm & Voss 141 was arguably the wackiest aircraft of World War II – and that’s no small claim given the likes of the Focke-Wulf Triebflugel, the Lippisch p.13a, and the Bachem Natter. It’s all the more weird because it actually made it into service. It was basically a twin-engined Focke-Wulf 189 that had been sawn in half to make an asymmetric single-engined aircraft. It was quite simply the weirdest thing I’d ever seen.

In the decades since then, I’ve conceived a great love of weird science and wacky inventions, from the cartoons of W. Heath Robinson (whose torch is proudly carried by Wallace’s Cracking Contraptions) to the Revolutionary War-era Turtle submarine to the Reniassance tanks and helicopters of Leonardo da Vinci. Recently, I got to write about a couple of them.

I came across the Air Loom and the Puckle Gun while doing some writing and design work for Empire: Total War. The Air Loom is not a tomato, as several friends have suggested. It was an 18th-century Infernal Device, a precursor to today’s orbital mind control satellites, and used “pneumatic chemistry” to mount targeted attacks on the minds and bodies of its victims. Given that our sole source of information about it was an inmate at London’s infamous Bedlam hospital, it probably never existed. That didn’t stop me writing an article for Pyramid magazine speculating on what it might have meant for the world if it had worked. Your tinfoil hat won’t help you against attacks like “Bomb Bursting,” “Lobster Cracking,” and “Lengthening of the Brain,” that’s for sure. And as for “Apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater,” eesh – don’t get me started.

The Puckle Gun, on the other hand, is undeniably real. No, it didn’t fire puckles – that was the name of the inventor. It was a big musket (up to 2″ bore) with a revolving magazine of pre-loaded cartridges, and it could keep up a sustained fire rate of nine rounds per minute. That’s three times what a trained soldier could do with a 0.7″ Brown Bess musket, and that in ideal conditions: Puckle demonstrated the gun in the rain at least once. It was never adopted, though, because the design was too far ahead of the manufacturing technology of the day. Muzzle Blasts, the magazine of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, carries the article in its July 2011 issue.

The nice thing about writing for games – or writing any kind of speculative fiction for that matter – is that it doesn’t matter whether or not a device actually existed, or really worked. If the idea is intriguing enough, then you can have a mad scientist or evil overlord get one working, and it’s all yours. No science too weird, no weapon too wacky, no plan too evil.

Now, if I could just get the Air Loom in my basement working, and persuade my bank manager to inhale this bottle of magnetized gas. . . .

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  1. Alan Green
    July 1, 2011 at 8:50 am

    The Lippisch was COAL-powered? Don’t let the dwarves know. Imagine a sqaudron of Mach 2.6 delta-wing coal-fired fighters going up against the might of Barad-Dur.

  2. July 1, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I can just hear all the steampunks twitching at the thought. . . .

  3. RogerBW
    July 3, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    I am still inclined to feel that the strangest thing about the Puckle gun was its two variants (spherical bullets for use against Christians, cubical ones against Turks).

  4. July 4, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Yep, to convince the Turks “of the benefits of Christian civilization,” as I recall. I would expect that a 1″ – 2″ ball would be quite painful enough, thank you, and the added damage from a square shot would have more of a propaganda value. The stresses on a barrel with a square bore would make me nervous firing the thing.

    • RogerBW
      July 4, 2011 at 8:26 am

      Absolutely. From the limited information available it seems to have been a decent weapon in other respects – general knowledge of breech stresses and such like was pretty solid at this point – but the expense of hiring really good gunsmiths to hand-craft each one put it out of reach of sensible armies.

      (Player characters, on the other hand, who often don’t mind how much something costs as long as it’s The Very Best…)

      • July 4, 2011 at 8:58 am

        I’m no expert, but I would think that consistently machining the breech and the cartridge cases to the tolerances needed for a good gas seal would have been a major challenge.

  5. July 4, 2011 at 8:59 am

    RogerBW :

    (Player characters, on the other hand, who often don’t mind how much something costs as long as it’s The Very Best…)

    True, very true. Especially the player who put everything into his character’s strength and insisted on firing the thing from the shoulder.

  1. August 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm

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