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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
United States Service Magazine
Vol. 1 No. 1 (Jan. 1864), pp50‑55

The text is in the public domain.

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 p50  Greek Fire,
and Other Inflammables​a

Among the many evidences of mechanical skill and of scientific development which have marked the progress of the existing rebellion, as displayed in the Monitors, rifled guns, fuses, projectiles, and other implements of war which accompany the Army and Navy, the application and use of an agent so terrible to the ancients under the name of "Greek fire" demand, at least, a brief recital of the marvellous accounts which have been handed down to us concerning its earlier history.

Originating among a people who for nearly five hundred years indulged in the most extraordinary perversion of the idea of elementary constitution, or led by a delusive process of reasoning, which proclaimed the material universe to be composed of fire, air, earth, and water, it is not astonishing that we have no credible testimony as to the precise composition, or period of the original discovery, of this wonder­ful agent.

It is, indeed, asserted that the composition of this substance was known to the earliest Greeks; but certain it is, we have no definite knowledge concerning its use until after the establishment of the Eastern Empire. It is not improbable that the first assertion had its origin among some of those zealous enthusiasts for antiquity and the "lost arts," who loudly declare that the ancients were not only pre-eminently felicitous in sculpture, poetry, and other fine arts, but that they also excelled in all branches of science; that the blaze of intellect in those days irradiated the whole domain of human knowledge, leaving but a small terra incognita beyond; in short, that the brilliant results of modern science and inductive philosophy are merely so many treasures of knowledge known to the ancients, long buried amidst the intellectual ruins of the Middle Ages, and now gradually undergoing restoration.

In no branch of human knowledge is there more tendency to exaggeration than in historic narratives dictated under the impulse of fear. Terrible as were the reputed effects of ancient artillery, it bore no comparison to that of modern date in its destructive character; and, while we placidly witness the tremendous effects of Ruhmkorff's induction coil, the citizen of Leyden, in the beginning of seventeenth century, declared, upon receiving an insignificant shock from a feeble electric jar, that he would not be subjected to such another "for all the kingdoms on the face of the earth." It is therefore incumbent upon us to receive with many grains of allowance the accounts handed down to us from periods of greater mental darkness, by ignorant and credulous  p51 scribes, of the marvellous achievements and wonder­ful results of this insinuating, inextinguishable, water-consuming destroyer.

It would be presumptuous indeed to attempt to render clear that which many eminent writers have abandoned as entirely hopeless. Nevertheless, by comparing the narratives and descriptions of ancient writers, with the aid of some collateral information bearing on the subject in question, it will not be very difficult to perceive that different inventions have been described under the same name, and that the main source of confusion may be traced to this cause. If it shall be made to appear that all the accounts cannot thus be reconciled, we may at least discover what some kinds of Greek fire really were, even if we are left in darkness regarding the others.

The common opinion, according to Beckman, is that Greek fire was invented during the reign of Constantine Pogonatus, in the year 668, by Callinicus, an architect of Heliopolis; and it is alleged that he used it in a naval engagement with so much effect as to destroy a whole fleet of the enemy, on which were embarked thirty thousand men. Gibbon, in his history of the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," asserts that its composition and use were revealed by an angel from heaven to Constantine the Great, under the most sacred injunction not to impart the secret to any foreign nation. For four hundred years the use of it was confined to the Eastern Romans, until near the end of the eleventh century, when it was discovered or stolen by the Mahometans and used by them against the Crusaders.

It is described as a kind of artificial fire, which insinuated itself beneath the surface of water, burning therein with increased violence, and the direction of the flame, contrary to the usual course, progressed downwards, or to the right or left, according to the movement imparted to it.

That it was a liquid composition we are led by Gibbon to infer from the various modes of using it. It was employed chiefly on board ships, and thrown on the vessels of the enemy by large engines, or introduced among a hostile fleet by fire-ships. It is also said to have been discharged from the fore-part of vessels by machines constructed of copper and iron, the extremity of which resembled the open mouth of a lion or other animal. They were painted, and even gilded, and were capable of projecting the liquid fire to a great distance. It had its applications on land also, for the annoyance of the enemy in battles and sieges, and was either poured from the ramparts out of large boilers, or launched by ballistae in red-hot balls of stone or iron, or darted in arrows and javelins twisted around with flax and tow which had imbibed the inflammable oil.

The author of the Esprit des Croisades reports it to have been in use in China in the year 917, and that it was there known by the name of the "Oil of the Cruel Fire." It is further alleged that  p52 it was introduced by the Kitan Tartars, who learned the composition from the King of Ou. As the period referred to is only two hundred and fifty years after the time of Constantine Pogonatus, and as the Chinese have never been known to borrow arts from the Europeans, it is reasonable to infer that it had long been known to them. Procopius, in his history of the Goths, uses the same term as the Chinese, calling it an oil, — "Medea's Oil," — considering it an infernal composition prepared by that noted sorceress.​b

Geoffrey de Vinesauf, who accompanied Richard I in the Crusades, says, "With pernicious stench and livid flame, it consumes even flint and iron, nor could it be extinguished with water." In the face of this, the Florentine monk who describes the siege of Acre says, "It can only be extinguished by vinegar mixed with urine and sand." That it should consume "even flint and iron," and yet be projected in iron shells and iron tubes, — that it consumed flint and was extinguished by sand, — are declarations not easily reconciled; but that it should have been put out by vinegar and urine is an impossibility, since those substances are composed largely of water, and were not likely to have been procured in sufficient quantity to serve the desired purpose and upon no principle could they have acted differently from water.

Respecting its composition, the information handed down to us is very unsatisfactory. The location of Heliopolis, and its proximity to Persia and district around the Caspian Sea, both of which abound with naphtha springs, continually pouring out this inflammable liquid, which burns rapidly on the surface of water, readily suggests the use of this agent as an element in its composition; and this view Gibbon readily adopts, although he attaches but little credit to the fallacious hints of the Byzantine writers. While the liquid form is usually accepted as the common one, other writers describe it as a solid substance. Quintus Curtius considers it made of turpentine. The princess Anna Comnena, in her history, says it was composed of sulphur, bitumen, and naphtha: in another place she says it was a mixture of pitch and other similar resins, — which clearly implies a solid composition.

Porta, in his Magie naturelle, remarks that it was composed of willow charcoal, salt, burnt brandy, sulphur, pitch, frankincense, flax, and camphor. Ruggieri, the celebrated French pyrotechnist, in speaking of incendiary fireworks, mentions also Greek fire: he observes that it was composed of naphtha, sulphur, bitumen, camphor, and petroleum mixed together.

Joinville, an eye-witness of the siege of Acre, in his Histoire de St. Louis, presents us a description which would seem to refer again to the solid form, and that, too, in the shape of a rocket. He says, "it was thrown from a machine called a  p53 petrary, and that it came forward as large as a barrel of verjuice, with a tail of fire issuing from it as big as a great sword, making a noise in its passage like thunder, and seeming like a great dragon flying through the air, and, from the great quantity of fire it threw out, giving such a light that one might see in the camp as if it had been day."

This description permits no parallel except in the flight of a rocket or a carcass. A rocket would resist an application of water, but then it is self-propelling, and requires no "petrary" or other machine to throw it. A carcass might be so thrown, but it emits no such tail of light "as big as a great sword," nor would it make a noise "like thunder." In both cases nitrate of potash must have been a necessary constituent, and, had its use then been known, the transition from the period of Greek fire to that of gunpowder would in all probability have been shorter than is now chronicled in history.

If we are right in supposing the Greek fire of Joinville to have been a rocket, we are confirmed in the opinion, before referred to, of difference in kind among the Greek fires, and the idea derives strength from the fact that, as in the case of the rocket of the present day, the narrative indicates more alarm than mischief attending its use.

From the statements thus given, we may deduce a conclusion without further citations from the ancient authors. First, that the so‑called Greek fire was composed for the most part of naphtha; that, as naphtha is a power­ful solvent of resins, turpentine, bitumen, and probably camphor, which resists the action of water to some extent when inflamed, were combined with it, and that the original article was in a liquid form thrown out by forcing-pumps, or conveyed in vessels by hand. Second, that a solid form was often substituted for the other, which was used an incendiary ball or carcass; that it does not appear, upon any testimony extant, that nitrate of potash entered into its composition; and that the use of sulphur is not improbable, taken in connection with its known solubility in various volatile oils, of which turpentine is one.

Much of the mystery which has attended the use of this warlike agent arises in a great measure from the wonder, ignorance, and exaggerations of the ancient writers; and we may rest content under the assurance that we have lost nothing by our imaginary loss of the Greek fire. In whatever arts the Orientals may have excelled us, we may still boast that in the art of destroying each other we could have taught them much, and can learn little or nothing from them. Had Joinville witnessed the cannonade at Gettysburg, or the performance of the batteries in front of Charleston, the thunders and lightnings at Acre would in comparison more closely have resembled the representations at the Bowery Theatre, and, we are led to the belief, that the  p54 power of language would have been wholly inadequate to describe the depth of his emotions.

In the progress of all wars of any magnitude, ever since the general introduction of gunpowder, attempts have been made, without success, to introduce combustible liquids into the general purposes of modern warfare. While the liquid condition itself must render all such efforts limited in their application, it is worthy of inquiry whether the spirit of Christian warfare really seeks for the introduction of such destructive agencies, where the object sought is to exhaust rather than to annihilate, to scatter and dispel rather than consume men and means. Napoleon recognized this principle; and, had it been desirable to possess a liquid having the reputed qualities attributed to the Greek fire, all who know his ardent attachment to the promotion of science, and his regard for Berthollet the renowned chemist, will admit that under such patronage modern chemistry would readily elaborate a Greek fire in greater perfection than the Greeks of the Empire ever dreamed of. Indeed, we have now, were such adapted to the general purposes of war, combustible liquids which exceed in their destroying qualities any heretofore mentioned.

A glass hand-grenade containing a solution of phosphorus in bisulphide of carbon, spontaneously ignites when broken. The same is true for a solution of phosphorus in chloride of sulphur, in which the permeating character of the latter facilitates the combustion; and in either case, unless water were continuously applied, the ignition would commence anew after the application, while the odor diffused is insupportable.

When a mixture of acetate of potash and arsenious acid is distilled at a low red heat, a colorless liquid heavier than water, of an excessively disagreeable odor, and actively poisonous, results, called Alkarsine, C4H6AsO. If this liquid be exposed to the air, it oxidizes, ignites, and throws off deadly fumes of arsenious acid.

When Alkarsine is distilled with strong chlorohydric acid, and the produce digested in a vessel containing zinc, water, and carbonic acid, a heavy oily liquid insoluble in water is produced, which takes fire the instant it is brought in contact with the air. If this substance, termed Kacodyl, C4H6As, was confined in glass globes or bottles, and dropped on the deck of a vessel, or thrust below, all the horrors of combustion and deadly arsenical inhalations would be realized, beside which the terrors of the Greek fire would be contemptible.

But mere destructibility of property can be secured by inflammables less deadly and revolting to the civilized world, the use of which was proposed in the War of 1812, in the war in the Crimea, and for the present reduction of Charleston. A solution of camphor in oil of turpentine, mixed with copal varnish or coal-oil naphtha, may be thrown in a bottle or grenade, and ignited in  p55 the usual way by a fuse. It might even be contained in a compartment of a shell, and exploded when thrown from a mortar in a way which would jeopardize the safety of a vessel or a building.

For the destruction of a camp or a besieged city built largely of wood, Siemienowich's fire rain has been recommended. This ignites readily, and resists to a considerable extent the attempt to extinguish it by water. This substance is composed of melted sulphur and nitrate of potash, to which a small proportion of mealed powder is added, and the whole is permitted to solidify. Broken in fragments, it is mingled with the charge of powder placed in a shell, and, by explosion of the latter, ignited and scattered in all directions. For all purposes wherein fire rain is found to be applicable, rock fire is even more destructive. It is composed of resin, sulphur, nitre, metallic antimony, melted tallow, and turpentine, all of which are fused together and used in a manner similar to the composition before described.

The attempt of Mr. Levi Short, of Philadelphia (deceased during the past summer), to introduce into the department of the South an effective combustible agent, designed to be employed in the bombardment of Charleston, is one of the many recent efforts to introduce inflammables into warfare.

We are not apprized of the composition of Mr. Short's invention, but it may safely be asserted that five out of every six of the shells loaded with his preparation, either from attrition of the particles in the rotary motion of the shell, or from some other cause, burst in the gun, or just in front of it; and it is a matter of extreme doubt whether a single shell thus charged ever reached the city. We do not know of any substance bearing a resemblance to the renowned Greek fire of old: nevertheless there have not been wanting inventors who, dazzled by the visionary character of this exaggerated and mysterious substance, have labored to re-discover it. The public, however, may rest under the assurance, that all who are engaged in investigations of this kind are in pursuit of an "ignis fatuus."

Thayer's Note:

a In the print edition of the journal, the author is credited only in the Table of Contents. He is Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Edward C. Boynton, an American artillery officer, chemistry professor, and amateur historian, whose interests intersect nicely here.

b Wars, VIII.11.36. Procopius makes no judgment, however, on the infernality or sorcerousness of the compound.

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