March 13, 2007
A Gunpowder Plot At The History Channel?
By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily
Like many people, I’m hopelessly addicted to the History Channel. Barring the occasional hour on the story of tapioca, or putty, they do lots of interesting stuff, and last night it was ancient Chinese weaponry. Everything was going swimmingly until the program reached the invention of gunpowder. It showed a fellow mixing the stuff in a solid-silver (!) bowl, and we were informed that charcoal is the main ingredient, and there are two others.
“Huh?”, thinks I. “Why are they being coy about the other two ingredients?” And then it came to me. They are doing it for the same reason that the TSA does most of their stupid stuff—security. I can think of no other reason for omitting two thirds of the recipe than the fear that a viewer might rush right out, mix up a batch of black powder, and explode something he shouldn’t.
This is absurd for many, many reasons, the most prominent of which is the ease with which you can get this information. Working against a watch, I went on line this morning and got the answer in 11 seconds. As a security measure, the History Channel’s one-ingredient ploy ranks with the airlines refusing to hand out plastic knives so passengers can slice their tiny, rock-hard, airline-issue bagels.
The truth is, anyone can find out just about anything if they want to. Some years ago I had lunch with the president of a knife-sharpener company, and he told me the following story:
“During World War II I was a professor of metallurgy at the University of Chicago, which was one of the centers of development for the atom bomb. One of my jobs was recruiting graduate students to work on the Manhattan Project. I was interviewing a young man and told him what he would be doing, but that I couldn’t tell him why he would be doing it.
“He said, ‘You’re working on an atom bomb.’”
“I nearly passed out. This was one of the most closely guarded secrets in World War II.
“How in God’s name did you know?” I asked him.
“It wasn’t hard,” he said. “We just keep track of who’s disappearing, and what they do, and we put two and two together.”
So much for secrecy.
And if there is no History Channel gunpowder plot I apologize to all the appropriate people.