You can contact me at rogercdavies(atsquiggle)

This blog has evolved into a review of historical and modern explosive devices, and responses to them. Links are drawn between historical activity and similar activity in the world today. Mostly I focus on what are now called IEDs but I have a loose personal definition of that and wilingly stray into discussions of more traditional munitions, the science and technology behind them, tactical employment and EOD responses. Sometimes it's just about interesting people in one form or another. Comment is welcome and encouraged but I do monitor it and reserve the right to delete inappropriate stuff. Guest posts are always welcome. Avoid any stuff that makes the enemy's job easier for them.


Entries in 1810-1820 (7)


How gun locks were used in IEDs for over 250 years

When I started my research into historical IEDs a few years ago, I came across references to “gun locks” used as initiation mechanisms. The “gun locks” are from firearms such as wheel-locks or flintlocks repurposed to initiate a larger explosive charge.

However I have continued to encounter these mechanisms at every turn of my research. The deeper I dive into historical documents the more I think they were much more common than I had realised. In fact I think they were a usual way of initiating IEDs for about 250 and even for as long as 330 years. I think that’s surprising and worthy of explanation   The wheel-lock and its successors, the snap lock, the snap-haunce and the flintlock are essentially spring loaded levers operating around an axis which contrives to place a spark ignition system in direct proximity to gunpowder. In a firearm the “trigger” is pulled by the person aiming the firearm - the pull of the trigger releases the spring-loaded mechanism. In general terms in an IED the trigger is pulled or released by another mechanism such as a lever or a cord. But it is the same mechanism.

The developments of gun locks for firearms were paralleled and linked inextricably with the development of household locks for doors and chests, and the same people made both.  There is also a distinct parallel in technological development terms with clock making which saw some significant developments in about 1580 with the development of spring driven rather than pendulum driven mechanisms, and one sees this being a mechanism that enables mechanical timing mechanisms in IEDs for the first time at around this date.  But the clock is only a component to release a spring loaded lever, allowing the flint, for example, to strike and cause sparks.   One can still see the influence of clock making in fairly modern fuzes, and I think that’s an area for future research, to explore the early parallels of lock mechanics with fuze mechanics. Indeed the language of clocks and explosive fuzes is very similar in describing components - ”fuzes" and “trains".

I’ve discussed before some of this , in relation to the invention of detonating systems,  but here I want to concentrate on the locks and the derived implications to IED design. 

Here’s an outline of the technology:

Prior to 1500 firearms were fired with "match locks". Pulling a trigger caused a slow burning cord, (a "match")  held on an "s" shaped lever to be pushed into contact with the gunpowder charge. In about 1500 the wheel lock was developed as a sophisticated mechanism to initiate a firearm without a pre-lit match.  The wheel lock is a spring loaded steel wheel which acts with friction against a piece fo pyrite to produce sparks, pushed against it by a spring loaded lever or "dog".   The resultant sparks land upon the beginning of the gunpowder train. (think of a Bic cigarette lighter, yet the thumb which turns the steel is replaced by a spring).  A simple "detent” safety catch is easy to include which prevents the spring loaded mechanism being moved until the device is set up in place.  Thus the wheel lock is:

  1. Safer than using a matchlock where a slow burning fuse ("match”) is introduced to the gunpowder train (not a good idea with a large charge of gunpowder immediately adjacent)
  2. Able to be left in place for as long as the gunpowder doesn't deteriorate
  3. Able to facilitate its containment and concealment (partly due to its small size) within an enclosure, which again a matchlock is not suited to.
  4. Able to prevent the give-away smell of  a burning match and the sight of a glow.

So in IED terms the wheel lock and its sucessors enable ease of use, concelament and safety, all key asopects for someone wanting to use an IED.

Pyrite is used in wheel-locks rather than flint because flint is too hard and the wheel would wear away rapidly. The wheel-lock is quite a complex piece of engineering and therefore expensive, which would have been a discouragement for the “one time use” within an explosive device.  

The snap lock was introduced in the late 1540s. The key to its design is that it is simpler, with less moving parts - simply a spring loaded lever holding a flint that falls on a steel or “frizzen". There is no wheel to wear out, and much less complexity, meaning that it is cheaper and therefore more likely to be “thrown away” in an IED.

The snaphaunce LINK developed in the 1550s and the flintlock LINK developed in 1620, were basically improvements on the snaplock design , allowing the pan to be covered for safety and to keep out the weather - the essential difference between these latter two is the mechanism by which the pan of gunpowder was uncovered.

So, between 1500 there is a period of 120 years of technological development to get from the original matchlock to the safe, flexible, cheap, easy to operate flintlock. Here's a video showing in a bit more detail how a flintlock on a firearm works.

From about the 1540s it may have become an economic option to use a gun lock in a “one time use” IED - perhaps from a broken firearm.

The next issue to address is how the trigger is pulled or released to allow the gun lock to fire.  There are essentially three principle modes of initiation for IEDs, all based around the fundamental idea that the perpertrator does not want to be near when the device explodes -  and the firing lock can enable each one of these three:

  • By command from a distance.  Simply by tying a cord to the trigger of a gun lock a device can be initiated from a safe distance.
  • By a victim’s action.  By tying a cord to the trigger and attaching the end of the cord to an attractive object or some other thing likely to be moved, the perpetrator can cause the initiation by a victim.
  • By timer. if the firing lock trigger is attached in some appropriate way to a clockwork mechanism, then after a set time, the trigger will be pulled.   

The following examples detail use of these three technique from the period between 1585 to 1918 - a significant period of history

In the 1570s the somewhat exotic inventor Ralph Rabbards describes contrivances that require some sort of spring loaded mechanisms to initiate explosives, and at the same time Samuel Zimmerman of Augsberg described explosive devices set off with hidden springs and string.    Zimmermann discusses “booby trapping” a chair that will initiate a device when sat on, and booby trapping a “purse of gold” left lying in the street.    I’m pretty certain that these devices would have used a gun lock initiator - how else would they have been initiated?  The technology was there and there are no other apparent mechanisms available to the bomb designer of the time. 

In 1581, the Polish besiegers of the City of Pskov sent a jewelled casket to the occupants of the city of Pskov. The device exploded when it was opened by the Russian defenders.   This booby trap mechanisms must have been initiated by a gun lock , adapted and contained in the casket.

This link here, tentatively dated to the 1580s shows 4 command initiated devices, initiated by operators pulling a cord from a distance. One has to assume that the cord was attached to the trigger of a firing lock buried in the barrels on the route of the target convoys. Not much changes does it?

In 1585, Giambelli’s clockwork Hellburner was triggered by a clock provided by Antwerp clock maker Jean Bovy.  Now techncialy, that could have been a lever, activated by the clock, which moved a burning match.  But I think a gun lock is more likely.

In 1628 Cornelius Drebbell (the inventor of an early submarine) developed floating devices used (unsuccessfully) by the English Navy against the French in La Rochelle. I have found this description of Drebbels explosive devices, written by Carles Bernard in 1628 in the Mercure Francois:

`During the night between Sunday (Oct. 1st.) and Monday, the English shot ten or twelve floating petards for the purpose of setting fire to the royal French fleet. The body of these petards is of white iron filled with gun-powder and floats on a piece willow wood, through which a spring is made, which when it encountered the bows of one of the royal ships, took effect, which consisted simply in this, that it threw water into the ship with much power; all the others were captured as they floated on the water and did no harm.’

So, my assessment is this - the iron cased charge is mounted on the floating wood platform, some form of spring powered lever acts on the device when it comes into contact with the enemy ships.  I think the most likely technology of the time which could have utilised that spring action is to release the trigger of a gun lock. I’m happy to consider other solutions but to me I’m now fairly certain.  One historian has suggested that Drebbell, who was known to have dabbled in alchemy, may have used the first ever high explosive, the primary explosive Gold Fulminate (discovered in 1602) – but I remain unconvinced. Occams Razor suggests to me a gun lock.

This diagram below from about 1630, shows a clear representation of a booby trap with a basket of attractive objects , within which is a firing lock tied to one of the top objects - lift the attractive object, pull the cord and the firing lock will cause the device to explode. Look carefully and you'll see the lock at the bottom.

In 1645 we have this description of two IEDs, each clearly using a firearm lock attached to clocks.

In 1650 we have this device, using a pistol firearm lock, initiated by the pull of a string. 

In 1764 we have a postal device that utilised a booby trap using a firearm lock. 

In 1776 and 1777 The American revolutionaries used systems that instinct suggests to me were similar to Drebbel’s devices of 1628, but develped by David Bushnell. Buchnell also followed Drebbels lead in submarine vessel ideas.

Here's part of the timing mechanism that Bushnells famous "Turtle" submarine was meant to fasten to the bottom of HMS Eagle. The timing mechanism's gears ultimately tripped a flintlock mechanism to fire a gunpwder charge. (Photo John Wideman)

Bushnell also used floating explosive charges with levers on the outside designed to be pulled when they came into contact with ships, very much like Drebbels devices of 1628. 

This image is a replica of a Bushnell IED that was floated down a river towards the Britsh ships. The lever on the outside causes a flintlock on the inside lid of the barel to be activated when the external lever comes into contact with the side of a ship, or a cable is pulled in some manner.

This image below is of an original revolutionary IED, the inside of the lid of the barrel, showing the flint lock mechanism held in place, to be activated by the lever on the outside. The flinlock shown appears to be from a British made "Brown Bess".

 (My thanks to John Wideman for allowing me to reproduce these images from his book “Civil War Torpedoes” where these pictures provide context for his very detailed and excellent work of later devices.)  

In 1805 Robert Fulton, an American working for the British Navy, (after being rejected by the French) designed a range of explosive devices using gun lock initiators. This diagram, produced by French technical investigators who captured and defused at least one of the devices following an attack on St Malo, shows clearly the firing lock mechanism adapted by Fulton as the explosive initiator. This diagram is one of my best finds.  This is a very sophisticated device and a very sophisticated techncial exploitation of the device by the French. The red annotations are mine, part of a lecture I give on historical technical exploitation.

In 1812, during the war with the British, Robert Fulton (who switched sides again, back to his mother country) used gun locks in a number of attacks using explosive devices on the British.  This attack on HMS Ramillies which was blockading American ports, used a very simple device, and nbot one of Fulton's designs, but nonetheless used firing lock.  It is described by Benjamin Lossing (thanks again to John Wideman for finding this)

In the hold of the schooner Eagle, John Scudder, junior, the originator of the plot placed ten kegs of gunpowder , with a quantity of sulphur mixed with it, in a strong cask, and surrounded it with huge stones and other missiles, which in the event of an explosion might inflict great injury.  At the head of the casks, on the inside, were fixed two gun locks with cords fastened to their triggers at one end and two barrels of flour at the other end, s that when the flour should be removed the locks would be sprung, the powder ignited and the terrible mine exploded. Thus prepared, with a cargo of flour and naval stores over the concealed mine, the Eagle sailed … . she was captured as expected and desired by armed men sent out on boats from the Ramillies.  The crew of the Eagle escaped to the shore at Millstone Point, and anxiously awaited the result. The wind had fallen and for two hours unavailing efforts were made to get the Eagle alongside the Ramillies for the purposes of transferring the cargo to that vessel. Finally boats were sent out as lighters, the hatches of the Eagle were opened and when the first barrel of flour was removed the explosion took place.  A column of fire shot up into the air a full nine hundred feet  and a shower of pitch and tar fell upon the deck of the Ramillies . The schooner, and the first Lieutenant and ten men from the flag-ship on board of her , were blown into atoms and most of those in the boats outside were seriously and some fatally wounded.

Although not involving flintlocks I have details of Fenian IEDs using high explosive initiated by pistols connected to timers in the 1870s, and Lawrence of Arabia’s railway IEDs in WW1 were initiated by adapted martini rifles firing mechanisms - which themselves were an idea copied from the Boers in South Africa in the Boer war.  However all these latter devices were in one sense different – they each actually fired a bullet into high explosive rather than igniting low explosive gunpowder.

I am by no means saying that every IED between 1540 and WW1 used gun locks - but gun locks enabled a simple and reliable way of initiating explosive charges and were used frequently and quite widely during the period.  A gunlock could be used easily to initiate a device, by those three key ways - by command, by the victim or by timer. A gunlock enables concelament and surprise.  I think these facts are crucial to an understanding of how IEDs were used in history.


The Mystery of Dundonald’s Destroyer, a WMD developed in 1811.

This is an interesting tale. Hold on as a guide you through it.

Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald was a remarkable man.   A naval hero, as a young captain he had marvelous adventures fighting the French on the high seas. The French nicknamed him “Le Loup des Mers” – the Wolf of the Seas.  He is said to be, in part, an inspiration for Jack Aubrey, indeed many of the stories from Cochrane’s naval exploits are rehearsed in the novels of Patrick O’Brian. 

As a young officer his career was not without aspects that cause, and caused, raised eyebrows – he was court martialled for showing disrespect to a senior lieutenant, and reprimanded.   But his naval career was generally exceptional, showing daring and gallantry in action.  During his time in command of HMS Speedy (with a mere 14 guns)  he captured or destroyed 53 enemy ships.  One of his exploits was his seizure and copying of French code books, leaving the originals behind so that the French would think they were uncompromised. When he captured the Spanish ship El Gamo, in 1801, he personally led the boarding party of 53 which consisted every man of his own ship, bar one, the surgeon, and took 319 Spaniards aboard the El Gamo prisoner. The El Gamo had seven times the firepower of the Speedy.  As the hand to hand battle was being fought fiercely and in the balance, Cochrane called over to the surgeon (the sole man left behind) and called for him to send  “the rest of the crew to join the fight”, so disheartening the Spanish.

After a short political career, he was convicted of stock fraud, dismissed from the Navy, lost his knighthood, humiliated in public and expelled from parliament (but then re-elected), standing on a ticket of parliamentary reform.  He was eventually pardoned in 1832 after a change in government. He was restored to the Navy list in the rank of rear-admiral.

In the intervening period before he was pardoned, he continued an adventurous life. Leaving England in disgrace he became a Chilean citizen and became a Vice Admiral of the Chilean Navy, conducting spectacular naval operations from his frigate the “O’Higgins” against the Spanish.

He then left Chile in a fit of pique and enrolled in the Brazilian navy ( I said you had to hang on and I haven’t even got to the interesting bits yet!) . He took command of the Brazilian flagship and fought the Portuguese, and fought them hard. In one episode he chased the entire Portuguese fleet across the Atlantic with just one ship.  He then fell out with the Brazilians and left with his pockets full….

He then joined the Greek Navy and fought the Ottoman empire, for once, with little positive effect.    His wiki entry is worth a detailed read.

Now, my interest in Cochrane, beyond his adventures, was in the development of certain weapons technologies. He invented numerous devices and systems to aid naval warfare and in other areas too. He worked with Brunel on tunneling systems and with Stevenson on steam engines.  One of his technologies was an “explosion ship” (see earlier posts). Explosion ships or “Infernals or “Machine ships” were not new but Cochrane made use of them to his own design in his attack on the French ships at Aix Roads in 1809

In 1811 he developed a mysterious weapon which became known as “Dundonald’s Destroyer”. He submitted a secret report detailing the technology in 1812 to the prince regent. This secret weapon system was demonstrated to the government on more than one occasion. On each occasion the reports are that the government reviews (whose panel included other weapons developers such as Congreve, the rocket developer)  were horrified with its effectiveness but declined to acquire the weapon system, it being beyond the sensibility that any person could use it against another, or as they described it “too horrible for humanity”. They demanded that its mystery remained secret. Even 100 years later, in 1914, as Britain faced the German empire there were calls to unveil and field this mysterious system.  There is a suggestion that a German butler stole the papers detailing the plans from the Cochrane family and passed them to the Germans in 1914.  Cochrane described the system as follows: 

"The infallible means of securing at one blow our maritime superiority and of thereafter maintaining it in perpetuity," that "no power on earth could stand against it," that it could be used by the weakest nation against the strongest, and that its construction was “so simple that the most ignorant minds could readily master its mechanism.”

Some historians suggested in the early 1900s that the device could have been some form of focused beam of sunlight using lenses and mirrors, which frankly I don’t find credible.  Others point towards Cochrane’s experiments with “smoke ships”. Cochrane, as we know used fire ships to cause arson and panic in an opposition fleet, and machine ships to detonate amongst them.  He also used smoke ships loaded with burning sulphur and charcoal which caused thick smoke that disguised the movements of his own ships.  The suggestion is that he realised that the choking effect of the sulphur dioxide produced a chemical effect on those exposed to it that turned it into a chemical weapon.  It seems the "Destroyer" was an improved version of the smoke ship, and perhaps associated with improved “machine ships” that exploded.  There is some mention of mechine ships being tilted at an angle to project massive explosive effect in a single direction being used in conjunction with hulks loaded with charcoal and sulphur.

In the Crimean War, Cochrane again proposed the use of explosion ships and ”stink vessels”  against the Russians at Sebastopol and in the Baltic.  The eminent scientist Michael Faraday was consulted with regard to the potential effects of the burning of 400 tons of sulphur (which gives us an indication of the scale of Cochrane’s plans), so it is clear the ideas were seriously considered some 40 years after Cochrane made the initial suggestion.

It's aparent that “Dundonald’s Destroyer” was some form of Weapon of Mass Destruction.  I note that Cochrane claims that it could be used on land or at sea…. Cochrane himself died, penniless in 1860.


Inventing detonators

I’m intrigued by the chain of historical inventions that led to the modern detonator.

Detonators for explosive charges evolved from firearm trigger mechanisms and I see these as an invention continuum, with one leading to another. Alongside these mechanical inventions, chemical discovery runs as a parallel track, particularly the discovery or primary explosives and high explosives, which detonate by shock (gunpowder being a low explosive which explodes by deflagration)

Initially, I guess the first “initiators” were simply burning fuzes which transmitted a flame to gunpowder. However there is some early mention of a some victim operated mechanisms perhaps using friction devices or steel and flint levers.   See Chinese IEDs here.  

To help undertsand the chain of scientific, chemical, physical and mechanical inventions that took us down this path the folloing rough time line might be useful:

Pre 1400 – Burning fuzes of various types, igniting gunpowder by burning.

Early to mid Mid 1400s - Invention of the matchlock mechanism to initiate firearms. Note that this was definitely a European invention – the Portuguese took matchlocks and introduced them to China and Japan.  (The story of how the Japanese obtained and reverse engineered the matchlock will be the subject of a future post) .

About 1500 – Invention of the wheel-lock, possibly by Leonardo Da Vinci, which introduces a new mechanical action to apply a burning fuze to a specific point.

1540 – The snaplock was invented, using a flint initiator. This was a precursor to the more sophisticated flintlock

1558 – The snaphaunce was developed which incorporated a mechanism for keeping the gunpowder covered until the flint fell, when the cover is opened automatically.  The cover is called the frizzen.

1588, a time initiated system used by Giambelli to explode the “Hoop”, with a timing mechanism causing ((I’m guessing with a snaplock or snaphance) to initiate the charge.

1602  Gold fulminate (the first primary/high explosive) discovered by John Tholde of Hesse.

1610 – The first flintlock initiation system developed The flintlock mechanism is an evolution of the snaphaunce whereby the frizzen is not only a cover for the pan of gunpowder, but also the steel face on which the flint strikes to cause sparks.

1659 Robert Hooke and Thomas Willis discover the primary explosive characteristic of Gold hydrazide

1745  Dr Watson of the Royal Society showed that an electrical spark from a Leyden jar could initiate a small blackpowder charge.

1750  Benjamin Franklin initiates gunpowder with an electrical spark and makes small paper tubes of  powder with two wires inserted and a spark gap created.

1788  Silver fulminate was first made by French chemist Berthollet.

1776 – American revolutionaries used adapted firearm mechanism to make contact mines consisting of “kegs” of gunpowder which were floated down rivers.  The kegs have fastened to the lid a wooden arm which when it touched a target ship connected to an iron pin, engaging a flintlock device from an adapted firearm, causing the main charge to explode.  Note the similarities in principle to much later IED initiators here.  I'll post some images of these "kegs' in future posts.

1777 – Italian scientist Alesandro Volta, describes how he had fired pistols, muskets and a ”mine subacquee” (underwater mine) electrically – it appears he used a hot wire to initiate a glass bulb full of a flammable gas.

1782 – Another Italian scientist, Cavallo, described detonation of a charge of gunpowder, electrically, using an incandescent wire embedded in the powder

1795 - Cavallo uses another method, using gunpowder mixed with steel filings, with two electrical probes embedded in it.

1799 - Fulminate of mercury, a primary explosive later used in detonators was first prepared by Charles Howard. Interesting reports on his experiments are here and I think its very significant indeed that Howard actually tested electrical initiation of mercury fulminate. I note also that Howard refers to French scientists electrically initiating some form of potassium chloride based explosive in the late 1700s.  Howard's description of the experiments he conducted with mercury fulminate are fascinating – clearly he hoped he had invented an alternative to gunpowder, but initiating mercury fulminate within a gun caused some catastrophic damage to his equipment!  There is a great description of how Howard measured the volume of gas produced from a specific quantity of the explosive.

1812 - The Russian military scientist Pavel Schilling developed an electrically initiated IED, as a mine.  My apologies, in earlier posts I credited this to others later in the 19th Century, and I have only recently discovered Schilling’s  (and Volta’s, and Howard's) technologies.  Schilling gradually improved the associated technologies, insulating wire with tarred hemp and copper tubing, and devising a carbon arc initiator.

Also in 1812 - Prussian scientist Sommerring improved the insulation of electrical wire, using rubber and varnish, allowing further capabilities to be developed in initiating explosives.

1820 – American scientist Robert Hare, worked on electrical initiation of flammable gases. Hare also developed a “plunger” type galvanic machine for producing electrical charges for this purpose.  

1822 – Hare used  a hotwire embedded in a pyrotechnic mixture to initiate a blackpowder charge.  In the 1830s Hare also produced a tin tube container packed with powder and with an ignition wire for rock blasting but foresaw the military importance of command initiated explosive charges. 

1829 – A young Samuel Colt initiated an under water charge electrically perhaps using a tarred copper wire.

1831 - The Bickford burning fuze was invented, taking away the guess work about time delays for burning fuses.

1837  Colonel (later General) Pasley of the Royal Engineers developed chemical then an electrical initiation mechanism to explode gunpowder charges under water. Pasley’s work appears to have been prompted by reading a  newspaper report of an “ordnance accident”, in Russia, when Tsar Nicholas I narrowly escaped death when viewing a demonstration of electrically initiated gunpowder charges used to blow up a bridge, presumably developed by Schilling. Pasley read the article and then sought the advice of English scientist Charles Wheatstone to consider how he might use the same concept.  Pasley’s contributions to military engineering are huge, and his explosive related inventions are very significant if only a part of that broader work.  I have yet to find details of Pasley’s chemical fuzes, but his electrical initiation mechanisms used electrically heated platinum wire, with the electricity provided by early galvanic cells. Pasley solved the problem of insulating the wires so they could be used under water, by coating wire with gutta percha. The platinum wire (or foil) provided enough heat to initiate the gunpowder it was embedded in.  However some reports state that the electrical system caused a detonation by a “galvanic spark” so the actual mechanism is still a little unclear.   I’m very intrigued by the chemical fuzes and how they worked, given the nature of the underwater tasks that Pasley developed the explosives for. I think it likely that there would have been some form of command pull to initiate the chemical reaction once the divers were clear and safe.  Chemically the reaction may have been similar to Nobel’s (later? ) designs.

1830s  -  Immanuel Nobel developed chemical initiation mechanisms to initiate gunpowder. The mechanisms used a glass vial containing suplhuric acid, which when broken (usually by an enemy) caused the acid to fall by gravity onto potassium chlorate, which ignited and caused surrounding gunpowder to initiate. These were confusingly called “Jacobi” fuzes after the Russian scientist for whom Nobel worked.  Jacobi led the Russian “armed services committee for underwater experiments” between 1839 and 1856. It is clear that Jacobi’s secrecy prevented international publication of the scientific achievements he made in electrical initiation. Jacobi’s work  from 1839 seems to have been prompted by both Schilling and Pasley.  What is significant is a reference I have found to Jacobi developing “mercury connecting devices” which probably mean some form of mercury electrical switch to initiate contact mines in the 1850s.

1830s, Mercury fulminate was used in copper caps used as firearm initiators taking the place of flint, and making the process of initiating a firearm much less dependent on flint and the weather.

1839 – Other British Royal Engineer salvage operations in Bermuda and in Bengal on the Hoogly river used electrically initiated charges.  I have a great piece of reseacrh to blog about with regard to the Hoogly river operation.

1840s – Samuel Colt conducted extensive work on highly complex electrical initiation systems for sea and river mines.

1848 - Werner von Siemens developed electrically initiated sea mines.

1863 - Alfred Nobel (Immanuel Nobel’s son) published his patent for a practical detonator to initiate nitro-glycerine.  Note that this was four years before his patent for dynamite.  In modern parlance this was a non electric blasting cap, itself initiated with burning fuse.   The detonator consisted of a small blackpowder charge, a wooden plug and a small quantity of nitroglycerine held within a metal cylinder. The black powder is initiated by a burning fuze, which pushes the wooden plug down the cylinder, which then strikes the niroglycerine with kinetic energy.

1865 -  Nobel refined his detonator design significantly, with a small metal tube containing mercury fulminate

1868. H. Julius Smith produces a detonator that uses a spark gap and mercury fulminate.

1875 The electrical detonator using a hot filament was developed independently by Gardiner and Smith


Big IEDs in Ships

As promised, a quick “connections’ commentary on some pretty remarkable IEDs on ships and boats in history.

“Fireships” in terms of boats and ships loaded with incendiary material go back in history – I have found reference to them as far back as 413 BC.  With the invention of gunpowder, fireships occasionally contained gunpowder. Sometimes in massive quantities.  In an earlier blog here, I wrote about the “hellburners”,  two explosively laden fireships used by the Dutch defenders of Antwerp in 1584 against the invading Spanish – one of these the “Hoop” (Hope) detonated against a temporary Spanish bridge, killing 800 - 1000 soldiers. If this is true, it is still probably the most lethal single IED in history. I have now found a diagram purporting to the the clockwork timing mechanisms of the device manufacter by Bory. The Hellburner itself was designed by the Italian Giambelli, who possibly at the time (and certainly later) was an agent of the British.

References I have found recently suggest that Giambelli mounted a series of earlier attacks , floating explosive objects down the tidal river, with limited success. These IEDs were generally floating objects and rafts which carried barrels of gunpowder on a burning fuse.

After these earlier attacks failed Giambelli “thought big” and amidst a fleet of regular fire vessels sailed two explosive vessels (the “Hoop” and the “Fortune”) down the tide towards the target bridge. My earlier post has more details.  The "Fortune" had a burning fuse (which I have also fund an description of, but it is too complex to post details here).

The Hellburner incident and the use of explosive ships (described by the Italians as “Maschina Infernale”, and by the British as “Machine Vessels” became well known among the navies of Europe for several hundred years.

Just over a hundred years later in 1693 the British Navy led by Admiral Benbow used a ship, imaginatively named the Vesuvius, laden with 300 tons of explosives, (other sources say 20,000 pounds of gunpowder) during an attack on the French port of St Malo. The vessel was sailed in by a Captain Philips. The ship did not quite reach its target, became stuck on a rock and exploded “blowing the roofs of half the town”. But causing little loss of life.  The capstan of the “machine vessel” was thrown several hundred yards and landed on an Inn destroying it.Machine ship "Vesuvius", 1693

The following year in a raid on Dieppe, again led by Benbow a machine vessel was sent in to the port to destroy it. The ship, skippered by a Capt Dunbar was placed again the quay – and the crew and Capt Dunbar left it quickly. Unfortunately the fuze went out – but Dunbar re-boarded the vessel, re–lit the fuze, and evacuated a second time.

The Dieppe Raid, 1694

Similar machine vessel attacks were mounted on Dunkirk in the same year.

(Note: There were a number of vessels developed in parallel at the time , known as “bomb vessels” but these should not be confused with machine vessels. Bomb vessels were essentially ships built to mount and fire mortars.  To confuse matters the Vesuvius was a bomb vessel converted to a machine vessel)

A little over 100 years later in 1809 Captain (later Admiral ) Cochrane used an explosively laden ship in the Battle of the Basque Roads on the Biscay Atlantic coast of France.  Cochrane used two explosive ships and twenty-one fire ships to attack the French fleet moored off Ile d’Aix.  Here’s Captain Cochrane’s description (who personally set the fuses on one explosion vessel himself)

 "To our consternation, the fuses, which had been constructed to burn fifteen minutes, lasted little more than half that time, when the vessel blew up, filling the air with shells, grenades, and rockets; whilst the downward and lateral force of the explosion raised a solitary mountain of water, from the breaking of which in all directions our little boat narrowly escaped being swamped. The explosion-vessel did her work well, the effect constituting one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable. For a moment, the sky was red with the lurid glare arising from the simultaneous ignition of fifteen hundred barrels of powder. On this gigantic flash subsiding, the air seemed alive with shells, grenades, rockets, and masses of timber, the wreck of the shattered vessel. The sea was convulsed as by an earthquake, rising, as has been said, in a huge wave, on whose crest our boat was lifted like a cork, and as suddenly dropped into a vast trough, out of which as it closed upon us with the rush of a whirlpool, none expected to emerge. In a few minutes nothing but a heavy rolling sea had to be encountered, all having again become silence and darkness."

Cochrane went on , in 1812, to design even bigger machine vessels, but never got the political support needed to build or employ them. His 1812 designs used a hulk, rather than a rigged vessel.

“The decks would be removed, and an inner shell would be constructed of heavy timbers and braced strongly to the hull. In the bottom of the shell would be laid a layer of clay, into which obsolete ordnance and metal scrap were embedded. The "charge," in the form of a thick layer of powder, would next be placed, and above that would be laid rows and rows of shells and animal carcasses.   The explosion ship would then be towed into place at an appropriate distance from anchored enemy ships, heeled to a correct angle by means of an adjustment in the ballast loaded in the spaces running along each side of the hulk between the inner and outer hulls, and anchored securely. When detonated, the immense mortar would blast its lethal load in a lofty arc, causing it to spread out over a wide area and to fall on the enemy in a deadly torrent. Experiments conducted with models in the Mediterranean, during his layoff, convinced Cochrane that three explosion ships, properly handled, could saturate a half-mile-square area with 6,000 missiles--enough destructive force to cripple any French squadron even if it lay within an enclosed anchorage.”

In 1864, during the American Civil war an explosively laden ship, the USS Louisiana was used to attack a Confederate fort, Fort Fisher, guarding Wilmington, North Carolina.  The ship was meant to be run aground adjacent to the fort walls and then detonated.  The ship was carrying “215 tons of explosives”. The attack failed as the Louisiana detonated too far away from the fort walls to cause damage. 

Here’s a diagam of the ship. Note the huge amount of explosives. I have obtained a detailed description of the numerous initiation systems and fuzes but it is too complex to post here easily.  Suffice to say there were 5 independent firing systems.

USS Louisiana, 1864

Just over a fifty years later the Zeebrugge raid of 1918 saw the British Royal Navy again use an explosive vessel, this time the submarine C-3, under Lt Cdr Sandford. Sandford was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.

"This officer was in command of submarine C3, and most skilfully placed that vessel in between the piles of the viaduct before lighting his fuse and abandoning her. He eagerly undertook this hazardous enterprise, although well aware (as were all his crew) that if the means of rescue failed and he or any of his crew were in the water at the moment of the explosion, they would be killed outright by the force of such explosion. Yet Lieutenant Sandford disdained to use the gyro steering which would have enabled him and his crew to abandon the submarine at a safe distance, and preferred to make sure, as far as was humanly possible, of the accomplishment of his duty." After pushing the submarine under the piles of the viaduct and setting the fuse, he and his companions** found that the propeller of their launch was broken, and they had to resort to oars and to row desperately hard against the strong current to get a hundred yards away before the charge exploded. They had a wonderful escape from being killed by the falling debris.

Damage caused by the detonation of the C-3 - Zeebrugge 1918

The final one from this series is Operation Chariot, aka “the Greatest Raid”, the British Navy and commando raid on St Nazaire in 1942.  I won’t repeat the story, other than provide this link to the Wikipedia article – not many wikiperida articles make the hairs of my neck stand up, but this one does. In this raid, HMS Campbletown was converted into a massive IED and rammed into the docks in St Nazaire to prevent their use by the German Battleship Tirpitz.

 HMS Campbelltown rammed onto the dock gates in St Nazaire, before she exploded. 1942.

One big concept - massive IEDs in ships, woven through history.  

I have much more to post on historical naval IEDs. Be patient!



Siemens Tangents - Command wire IEDs of 1848

Following the post below about micro IEDs in Siemens equipment I’m going to go off on a wild tangent here. Hold on.

I’m reminded by the mention of Siemens about much earlier IEDs associated with the Siemens founder, Werner von Siemens in the 1840s.  For context, in the US Samuel Colt developed a number of sea mines, and in Russia, Alfred Nobel’s father Emmanuel Nobel worked for the Russians developing a contact fuze for sea mines used in the Crimean war against British naval vessels in the Baltic.  (A similar contact fuze, named the Jacobi fuze, but actually designed by Nobel was also used in improvised land mines in the Crimea).

Werner von Siemens was a German electrical engineer and inventor who developed electrically initiated command detonated water borne IEDs which protected the waters off Kiel and prevented Danish naval bombardment of the city during the Schleswig-Holstein war in 1848.   I’m amused that Siemens was placed under “honourary arrest” for being a second in a duel, and used his time in gaol to conduct chemistry experiments.

Siemens’s sister lived in Kiel where her husband was a chemistry professor. They lived close to the harbour in Kiel and were potentially vulnerable to Danish attack.   As Siemens says in his autobiography:

This led me to the then entirely novel idea of defending the harbour by submarine mines fired by electricity. My wires insulated with gutta-percha offered a means of exploding such mines at the right moment in safety from the shore. I communicated this plan to my brother-in-law, who took it up warmly and immediately submitted it to the provisional government for the defence of the country. The latter approved of it and despatched a special emissary to the Prussian Government, with the request to grant me permission to execute the plan. My authorized employment or even mere leave of absence for this warlike purpose was however opposed on the ground that peace still reigned between Prussia and Denmark. But it was intimated to me that I should receive the desired permission if circumstances changed, as was expected. 

I employed this waiting time in making preparations. Large and particularly strong canvas - bags rendered watertight by caoutchouc (rubber) were got ready, each capable of holding about five hundred- weight of powder. Further, wires insulated in all haste and exploding contrivances were prepared, and the necessary galvanic batteries procured for firing. When the departmental chief in the war-office. General von Reyher, in whose ante-room I daily waited for the decision, at last made the communication, that he had just been appointed minister and war having been resolved against Denmark, that he granted me the desired furlough as the first act of hostilities against Denmark, my preparations were almost completed, and on the same evening I left for Kiel. 

My brother-in-law in Kiel had meanwhile made all the preparations in order to proceed quickly with the laying of the mines, as the appearance of the Danish fleet was daily expected. A ship-load of powder had already arrived from Rendsburg, and a number of large casks stood ready well calked and pitched, in order to be provisionally used instead of the still unfinished caoutchouc-bags. These casks were as quickly as possible filled with powder, provided with fuses, and anchored in the rather narrow channel in front of the bathing establishment in such a way that they were buoyed twenty feet under the surface of the water. The firing-wires were carried to two covered points on the shore, and the course of the current so disposed that a mine must explode if at both points simultaneously contact was made.  At both places of observation upright rods were set up and the instruction given, that contact must be made, if a hostile ship took up a position in the direct line of the rods, and remain made until the ship had again completely removed from the right line. If contact of both right lines were at any moment simultaneously made the ship would be exactly over the mines. By experiments with small mines and boats it was ascertained that this exploding arrangement acted with perfect certainty. 

Later in the war the casks were replaced with "caoutchouc" india rubber bags and Siemens used the casks as command initiated land based IEDs to protect the fortifications around Kiel. One of these detonated prematurely, as follows:

The rest of the men I had collected in the fortress-yard to distribute them and exhort them to bravery, when suddenly before the fort-gate rose a vast fire -sheaf. I felt a violent compression succeeded by a violent expansion of the chest: the first sensation was accompanied by the clatter of broken window-panes, and the second by the elevation of the tiles of all the roofs to the height of a foot and their subsequent fall with a dreadful din. Of course it could only be the mine, whose explosion had produced the mischief. I thought at once of my poor brother Fritz. I ran to the gate to look after him, but before I reached it he met me uninjured.

He had prepared the mine, set up the battery on the terre-plein, connected the one igniting wire with the one pole of the battery and fastened the other to the branch of a tree to have it ready to hand, and was about to announce this when the explosion occurred, and the atmospheric pressure hurled him down from the rampart into the interior of the fort. The rather violent wind had shaken the second firing-wire from the tree, causing it to fall just on the other pole of the battery and so producing the explosion.

Incidentally the same technique for sighting of targets was subsequently used in the US Civil war.

As an aside the scientific genes ran strong in the Siemens family. Werner's younger brother was a remarkable engineer who emigrated to England, adopted British citizenship and became knighted as Sir William Siemens for his contributions to science. Another brother, Carl, an entrepreneur,  worked in Russia developing the Russian telegraph system.  He was ennobled for this by Tsar Nichlas II.   

So a number of industrial dynasties, (Colt, Nobel and Siemens) all had beginnings based on the development of IEDs….