Today is, as I’m sure you’re all well aware, Bastille Day in France. According to our site statistics, we do actually have a number of regular visitors from France, most of whom likely stumbled in accidentally, due to the well-known French affection for all things atomic. Nevertheless, in their honour, we wish them a happy Bastille Day, and marvel that the rise of the French Republic can be attributed to a simple process known as “corning”.
Corning is a procedure wherein moisture is introduced into the process of creating gunpowder. This causes the mixture to clump together, dramatically reducing the amount of dust, and allowing gunpowder to be manufactured in far greater quantities due to an enormously decreased level of risk for the powdermaker. Those clumps are then broken up into kernels of a fairly uniform size, depending on the type of gun they are intended for, and baked or dried as a final preparation for use. This process not only decreases the dust, but also decreases the tendency for gunpowder to absorb moisture, which means that gunpowder could be safely stored almost anywhere. The absence of dust decreased the possibility of an accidental explosion, and its reduced tendency to absorb moisture meant that it didn’t require specific conditions to house it.
As a result of this, large quantities of gunpowder were stored in many military installations around the city of Paris in the late 1700′s, as a level of preparedness should the military garrisons stationed near the city need to mobilize quickly. One such installation was the now-famous Bastille fortress-prison, which had largely been decommissioned, and served only to hold a very few malcontents, guarded by a small garrison of retired soldiers. In the days leading up to the storming of the Bastille, the populist forces had managed to acquire quite a large number of small arms, mostly muskets, but had no powder with which to fire them. As a large stockpile was kept at the Bastille, and it was a very lightly-defended fortress, it became an ideal choice for a supply to pillage.
The symbolism that was later assigned to the act of storming the fortress was almost certainly not considered by the individuals who first marched on the prison. And had the commander of the forces stationed there simply realized he was outnumbered and capitulated to their demands, the whole event would likely have become a footnote in history. But through a series of strange decisions, and thanks to the fact that the French corning process was the best in Europe, allowing gunpowder to be kept quite literally anywhere, the stockpile kept at the Bastille was far larger than most realized — over 13,000 kg or 30,000 lbs — and as such was worth defending. That much gunpowder could supply a very large force, and would be enough to allow the populist uprising to stand firm against the French military, should it come to that.
The garrison commander, de Launay, thus decided to attempt to resist the oncoming hordes, and the confrontation escalated from something trivial to the very symbolic powderkeg that sparked the French Revolution. Combine the strategic importance with the Bastille’s reputation as a political prison, housing enemies of the Crown, and suddenly a bit of looting becomes the birth of a new nation.
So as Bastille Day celebrations continue around the globe, keep in mind that the fireworks exploding above are of the very same stuff that sparked a revolution. Pretty neat, when you think about it.