Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
We now find the bomb as an object of discourse, in that it appears in society on so many levels that we cannot help but constantly think and refer to it. One can say, “I bombed that assignment,” referring to a failure, or “I’m going to drop the bomb,” speaking of something very profound. Some Westerners view the issues of the world through the skewed scope that says “We’ve got the bombs,” while people in conflict zones live their lives under constant threat from actual bombs. Such is the dichotomy that the presence (habitus) of bombs creates.
Delineated so far has been the technological history and impact of bombs on our world today. While originally built for the sole purpose of destruction, the bomb appears to have assumed another role, that of an instrument of terror. A “bomb threat” causes panic, silent air raid sirens cause anxiety, and yet the nuclear weapons of the world have lain dormant for 5 decades.
The threat of nuclear weapons has been subordinated to the threat of personal (antipersonnel) bombs. These are the tools of terror, and the tools of terrorists.
“Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun [bomb] begins.” – Ayn Rand
The prime mover behind the evolution of bombs has been war, although some other examples do exist: referring to the various applications of dynamite in the 19th century for the construction of railroads, etc. The interesting thing about warfare is that, no matter where or why, the name of the game is efficiency. You want to destroy the enemy before he destroys you, and there never seems to be any economic hesitation in regards to defense these days.
The evolution of the bomb has stopped in this modern day, as nuclear weapons have reached the point where they are so powerful and held in such esteem that one’s use would likely begin a chain of events that could destroy the entire world (I realize this is a bit of a Cold War mentality). Toned-down, strategic nuclear weapons may have their role, although in these–just as with modern artillery referring back to traditional technologies (moving away from submunitions)–the technology is taking a step backwards, or standing still. The goal is no longer to create the most powerful bomb possible, as the implications of that would be, for lack of a batter word, overblown, but rather to create something applicable and not apocalyptic.
The people-thing relationship with the bomb has always been one of both purpose and respect. Bombs were made to destroy things, and thus people used them to remove obstacles, be it for the construction of a tunnel or the elimination of an enemy. With the creation of nitroglycerin there immediately arose the issue of stability and the chemists working on perfecting its application must have been hounded by questions like “is this really worth it?” The technology of explosives has the ability to go horribly wrong even when not being employed, as seen in the Halifax Explosion of 1917 and the Chernobyl incident in 1986 (thinking of the technology, noting the difference between a bomb and a reactor).
A secondary aspect of the people-bomb relationship is its Cold War notion as a show of power, as was discussed in the previous section.
Space – Anywhere there is need for mass destruction, namely in warfare.
Time – Since the discovery of gunpowder, its perfection, the introduction of alternatives (dynamite/TNT), creation of the atomic bomb, the impotence of the atomic bomb, and the popularization of anti-personnel bombing.
Material – The various technologies put to use. Primarily based around chemistry, although as noted previously the mass-manufacture of explosives itself changed mass-production.
Agency – The governments and militaries of the world.
If broken down into Thomas Hughes’ “phases,” one can note the perplexities that arise in the more recent history of the bomb:
Phase 1 (Convention/Development) was observed dating as far back as 9th century China. The technology was immediately adapted to warfare, and from there it moved into Phase 2 (Technological Transfer) with the movements of the Mongols, the Russians, the Near Easterners and their interaction with Europeans. Next came the trade companies of the European powers, certainly ‘networks’ in themselves.
Phase 3 (System Growth) was achieved during the second half of the second millennium CE, when gunpowder based weapons overtook their mechanical counterparts in terms of effectiveness. This is certainly the bomb’s most important phase (which ties into Phase 4, Substantial Momentum), as it seems to have impacted society to such a great extent. This period saw a rise in standardization of manufacturing, which was salient to bomb making and something that would become commonplace after the Industrial Revolution, not to mention an absolute necessity in modern times. This was mechanized production in its earliest sense, and marked the beginning of the age of the rationalization of labor processes. It almost demanded improved logistical capabilities and marked the movement towards a more militarized production process. An important turning point was leading into the American Civil War, where the U.S. Ordnance Department realized that designing an engineering strategy to orchestrate uniformity throughout the army’s weapons was not simply enough, and that constant adaptation and monitoring was necessary. Thus, an entire grand theory of research and development was created.
Phase 4 leads into the true modernization of warfare, predating the 20th century, but certainly underlined in the First World War. In the slow-moving style of trench warfare, bombs played a key role as they could knock out obstacles and bunkers, allowing for the advancement of infantry. While the idea of war itself is an imposing one, the battle in the trenches must have been soul-shaking. One does not need to read “All Quiet on the Western Front” to imagine the terror inflicted while on the receiving end of an artillery barrage. Bombs were also first dropped out of airplanes here, as was discussed earlier.
Phase 5 (Fixing Reverse Salients) would have something to do with the shift away from the threat of atomic weapons and the previously discussed idea of the bomb returning to its place in society as an instrument of terror. This is certainly a setback in bomb technology as it has essentially halted the advancement of nuclear technology. However, this idea is perplexing as I feel that the lifting of the nuclear tension has allowed for furthering of human society–now thinking of all the other technological developments that stemmed from military advancements during the Cold War. A final thought is that of the bomb's inherent violence, and how its nuclear modernization allowed for human detachment or, literally, distancing from this.
Back to the bomb main.