From Reality to Fantasy (Part 5): Leyden Bullets


In steampunk fiction, the idea of weaponizing electricity is never out of style. In fantasy, magic that involves lightning is just as common.

In the video game Dishonored, wall of light checkpoints fry hostiles trying to cross through them while admitting authorized people. Arc pylons are similar devices, like little towers. These target and electrocute anyone in the proximity who isn’t supposed to be there while ignoring guards. In the game you get to rewire these to scorch all the guards in an area.

In the newest steampunk game, The Order: 1886, you get to use an arc gun, designed by major character Nikola Tesla, which shoots a bolt of lightning at your opponent. A similar Tesla Gun was used in the classic steampunk game Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.

In literature, I point to Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, free online here or in various formats here, by Victor Appleton.

Shooting bolts of lightning from a Tesla-inspired gun is quite far-fetched. That’s why my favorite electric weapon comes from Jules Verne: the leyden bullet.  And as is usual with Verne, his idea might just work.

The leyden jar:

A leyden jar is in 19th century terms a condensor. That term is now modernized as capacitor. There are too many variations in design and effectiveness to get into exactly how they work, so let’s just say it’s a bottle you can charge up and then discharge later: it was an early way to “store” and electric charge … and shock people.
Early Layden jarA funny story goes that in 1746, Jean-Antoine Nollet gathered 200 monks to see how fast electricity traveled. This rather brilliant experiment in my opinion involved connecting the monks to one another by iron wire. They made a circle, or in this case, circuit, about a mile in diameter. Then he sent the charge of a several leyden jars (a crude battery) through them. He was fascinated to discover that all of the monks “reacted” at the same time, probably falling over in pain if I had to guess.

By the way, this was the same scientist who wrote a person could be “electrified by connection to a high-voltage generator” and then “would not bleed normally if he were to cut himself; blood would spray from the wound.” Nollet had discovered electrospray. Fun. I’m sure we can work this into fiction somehow.
Electriseermachine foto-2

Now, to weaponize it:

So we have a small solid (i.e. jar) that can store an electric charge. Now, we merely need to shrink it and fire it from a gun. At least, that’s what Jules Verne thought.

In Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, we read this:

Captain Nemo says, “… the balls sent by this gun are not ordinary balls, but little cases of glass. These glass cases are covered with a case of steel, and weighted with a pellet of lead; they are real Leyden bottles, into which the electricity is forced to a very high tension. With the slightest shock they are discharged, and the animal, however strong it may be, falls dead. I must tell you that these cases are size number four, and that the charge for an ordinary gun would be ten.”

Already we have something much more realistic than a bolt of lightning fired from a gun: we have a capacitor-bullet that hits, then shocks. How to fire it? How to fire it underwater?

The narrator Professor Arronax writes, “One of the Nautilus men gave me a simple gun, the butt end of which, made of steel, hollow in the centre, was rather large. It served as a reservoir for compressed air, which a valve, worked by a spring, allowed to escape into a metal tube. A box of projectiles in a groove in the thickness of the butt end contained about twenty of these electric balls, which, by means of a spring, were forced into the barrel of the gun. As soon as one shot was fired, another was ready to go.”

The gun described above is essentially a Girandoni, which I shall examine minutely in another post, as it is the gun I have equipped my hero with in The Adventures of Chadwick Yates.

Soon after this, Arronax and Nemo go for a little hunting on the ocean floor in diving suits and use this weapon to hunt, you know, highly endangered sea life, which is a little depressing. When Captain Nemo wasn’t fist-fighting with sharks, apparently his other favorite hobby was edging the rarest marine life towards extinction with electric bullets. Well, it was the 19th century. This is one reason I write historical fantasy – such men need worthy opponents, like monsters and demons. I feel very sorry for sea creatures when I read that book.

Could it work:

Well, I’m not aware that anyone has tried to make “leyden balls” and fire them from a compressed air rifle exactly as Verne describes. But using modern technology, we can say that the concept of a shock-bullet does in fact work.

TASER International, Inc. cooked up something a few years ago. Popular Science has an article about it, here. You may have seen Tasers that fire two pins connected to wires to let you shock someone without having to get into close quarters. Well, this weapon fires an untethered shotgun shell up to about 30 meters (100 feet). The shell carries a dry cell and shocks upon contact.

Note that TASER’s device does not use a capacitor like the leyden jar, but a modern battery. SWAT teams in the US have already used them in such places as Polk County Florida. The story. Whether being subjected to one is better or worse than being killed outright, I’m not sure, but I’d not volunteer to test one.

To close:

In the end, electricity is cool, but it’s also really complicated. If there is one thing humans are good at, it’s finding ways to make weapons. Time and again as I do research for my books, I cannot come up with an idea for a weapon that hasn’t already been tried or thought of. If electricity were easy to weaponize into something practical, one can be sure the human race would have done so at the first opportunity. So if you want to use electricity in historical fantasy, steampunk, or gunpowder fantasy, tread carefully.

Electric swords, electric rifles, and electric grenades are kind of like the Rube Goldberg devices of weaponry. There is always a much simpler and more effective way to do the same thing.

Take Captain Nemo’s leyden balls, for example. Why not just a spear gun? Rubber bands or compressed air and a tethered arrow would be just as effective at catching fish on underwater safari. It would be easier than going through the hassle of making tiny glass capsules with lead and steel, giving it an electrical charge, and so on and so on. It’s easier to find an arrow you shoot than a tiny caliber ball as well. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Nemo’s way is cool, but it’s tedious and expensive.

Much as car gas tanks do not just explode at the slightest shock like in the movies, electricity does not just jump across the room and burn whatever monster you wish.

But early electricity is awesome, and it can be used for many, many other things. Check out the video below for why early electrical experiments are not just amazing, but also beautiful:


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