The Cannons of Enlightenment
Niccolò Tartaglia and the experimental method
Most people have never heard of Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia. Born about 1500 in Venice, right when gunpowder artillery was becoming prominent on land and sea, he was a poor man’s son that died wealthy in 1557, a prominent expert in all forms of gunpowder artillery. Tartaglia was the very model of the modern, self-made man, someone whose unique understanding of emerging technologies elevated him out of obscurity.
He was a prolific writer in the first age of the printing press. As copyright laws had not been invented yet, his works were routinely plagiarized, so Tartaglia kept writing new books. Translation into English took time, however, so Tartaglia did not live to see the 1588 edition of The Art of Shooting, a book he had dedicated to Henry VIII, become a sensation in London.
The full English edition title, Three bookes of colloquies concerning the arte of shooting in great and small peeces of artillerie, variable randges, measure, and waight of leaden, yron, and marble stone pellets, minerall saltepeeter, gunpowder of divers sortes, and the cause why some sortes of gunpower are corned, and some sortes of gunpowder are not corned, is a fair summary of the contents. (You can read the text at this link.)
Framed as a series of conversations in which Tartaglia explains cutting-edge military technology to nobles and clerics, the narrative premise is a bit strange to modern readers. Yet it pays to remember that what we call “science” was still a kind of sorcery at this point, a dangerous knowledge with alarming implications. Publishing his Nuovo Scientia, the world’s first book on artillery and ballistics, in 1537, Tartaglia claimed that he had torn up the original draft on humanitarian grounds, only re-writing it because he feared the Ottomans were advancing on Europe. Whether or not the anecdote is true or a marketing ploy, it speaks to the spirit of an age when heretics burned right along with their books.
Art of Shooting begins with the very first English-language reference to mortars, which are the highest-trajectory family of artillery. Tartaglia then explains the rudiments of ballistics: aim straight at a target, and the cannonball will strike below it; aim above the target, and the cannonball will fall where you want it to. His message, unmistakable all these centuries later, is that gunners must grapple with gravity. While the math has escaped him, Tartaglia has observed the effects.
Tartaglia’s work informed Galileo Galilei, the famous astronomer, in his study of objects in motion. Today, those experiments are reproduced by introductory physics students all over the world as they learn about the “scientific method” and the laws of motion. Later, Isaac Newton used the thought experiment of a cannonball fired at such speed that it circles the world without landing on the ground; the mathematical rules of gravity were unraveled. Much later, Albert Einstein published his field equations, which were solved by an artillery officer named Karl Schwarzschild. Imagining a photon as a projectile, Schwarzschild discovered a mass limit at which light cannot escape gravity, thus positing the existence of black holes a century before their existence was confirmed through direct observation.
Now, I am not claiming that Tartaglia discovered black holes, or that they would not have been discovered without him. History is not actually made of butterfly effects. Indeed, his physics were Aristotelian, quaint to Europeans even just a century later. Rather, Tartaglia’s innovation was the thing that Galileo did to uncover momentum and friction: controlled, repeated experiment.
Load the cannon. Aim the cannon. Fire the cannon. Clear the cannon. Repeat. Each blast of powder is another experiment.
Tartaglia tells the reader to use a quadrant for accuracy, but warns that the accuracy of the gun will change as the barrel heats up throughout a long fire mission. Tartaglia knows this because he has fired a single cannon hundreds of times until it is ruined — just to see what happens.
He has stood at angles to both the blast and impact of culverins and demi-cannons in order to judge differential muzzle velocities.
He has used slightly different levels of saltpeter, proving that it is the ingredient which imparts the explosive potential to gunpowder.
He has used large and small grains (“corning”) of gunpowder to see what burns best in the biggest guns.
He has tried every weight of ammunition, so he knows that the heaviest ball can be flung the furthest distance.
He has detected the Magnus effect, in which the spin of a round shot affects accuracy, three centuries before Heinrich Gustav Magnus explained it, and he has reasoned out that air resistance affects accuracy, too.
Niccolò Tartaglia was not a scientist as we understand the term today. Yet he was clearly working towards a science of artillery, and it is why his work stood out in a very popular genre. Gunpowder formulation requires chemistry, its manufacture requires mechanization, and its uses create standardization. Because artillery requires a set of skills and a knowledge base that do not come from any other profession, it was the very first military occupation to be professionalized. Moreover, the printing press made it possible for any literate person of any social rank to learn the secrets of gunpowder and succeed in the cannon business, just like Tartaglia.
As the age of skepticism and rational inquiry dawned on Europe, thunder came from the clear sky. It was Tartaglia’s cannons.