When you leave Switzerland, and on your way to Southern Germany you cross Austria, your eyes discover from the top of the platform', which allows it to lower itself on the marvels of industry in its infancy, guns and war wagons, machines of singular form, posts charged with signals, models of a thousand different shapes and devices, which seem called to direct electricity and to make it the docile instrument of human will.
In the midst of the noisy activity of the great gallery, the very silence of the enclosure which stretches out at your feet, astonishes you, and, before these pictures representing strange operations accomplished in the depths of the sea, mixed with instruments of combat, photographs of fortifications, maps hung on the walls and objects to which no name can be given, you stop surprised at this singular spectacle and ask yourself what are these mysterious devices. Some of them belong to the Artillery, others to the Engineers, but almost all of them deserve special attention, for, of all the warlike exhibitions that crowd the Peaceful Palace of the Champ de Mars, the Austrian Exhibition is unquestionably the most interesting. In no other exhibition has the application of the new sciences to the art of war been pushed so far; it testifies both to the great education of these learned bodies, and to the essentially practical spirit which directs their work.
The eminent officer, president of the military commission for the Universal Exhibition, Baron d'Ebner, Colonel of the Engineers, whose name enjoys legitimate authority in Europe, has brought together and classified, with great order and in a most picturesque manner, all these products of war, some of which are destined, in peaceful times, to become the powerful auxiliaries of industry. The instinct of the curious and attentive gazing crowd does not deceive it into understanding that the science and the will which have been able to make electricity obedient, and to direct it either in isolation or by multiple effects, so as to ignite gunpowder in the depths of the sea or to raise by a simultaneous effort the walls of the ramparts, must be able to change the aim of its action and to tame matter with the same power, in order to carry out the work which the activity of modern societies constantly demands.
Let us do as the visitors of the great gallery do, and after having thrown a quick glance at the artillery, let us stop at the Engineering Exhibition, in front of the apparatus which it contains. - The Artillery Exhibition is certainly worthy of the Vienna Arsenal, that great establishment begun in 1849 and completed in 1356, which contains the artillery museum, the gun foundry, the drilling workshop, the weapons factory, the machine shop, the workshops for carriages and caissons, saddles and carriages and employs three thousand workers. The mountain gun, the four-gun field gun, the eight-gun bronze gun, the ammunition gun, the harnesses, the ingenious model of the casemate mountings, by General Baron de Leuk, allowing the fire to be directed in all directions, while reducing the opening of the embrasure, the machines for measuring the ballistic force and the breaking force of explosive materials, the tension of gases in the cannons, the one that tests the sabre blades, or the machine tools of the master of the first class, Borofka, all have undeniable merit: But the progress, the side by which the Austrian Military Exhibition distinguishes itself from all other exhibitions, is to be found in the engineering installation, and in particular in the reasoned application of electricity to various necessities of war, and in the various very ingenious and very practical procedures which Colonel d'Ebner has found to ensure its effective use.
An elegant carriage contains the mobile telegraph station: it is reproached for being too heavy; and most often the apparatus is placed in the first shelter that comes along, transformed into an office. But the instruments for establishing the telegraph line itself, which are simple and convenient, and the mechanical cart for manoeuvring the wire, present great facilities. - The magneto-electric telegraph, used to link the centre of the great places of war with the detached forts, and the much more modest apparatus of optical war telegraphy, remarkable for the modesty of its price and the simplicity of its operation, deserve attention. Three elementary signals, given during the day by three discs, and during the night by three lamps of varying strength, according to the range to be obtained, form the alphabet of this telegraph which a cart, harnessed to four horses, easily transports to all places. - Nearby is the electrical apparatus for igniting ordinary mines or submarine mines: three pictures, assembled like the leaves of a screen, represent, in the different moments of immersion, the submarine mines or torpedoes, floating cylinders filled with powder, maintained at a certain distance from the surface by an iron chain fixed to a fastener of a particular model and lowered to the bottom of the sea. These torpedoes are far more formidable to the ship than a reef or shoal. At the slightest touch of one of the pads surrounding the cylinder, the shock will bring the primer into communication with the electric current, and by sparking, ignite the gunpowder enclosed in the inner cylinder, which, on bursting, will shatter the walls of the vessel.
Two different devices are exhibited; one was used in 1859 by Colonel d'Ebner for the defence of Venice, the second, a model perfected and made more manageable by this learned officer, was immersed by his care during the war of 1866. Both systems are based on the communication of the bait with the electric battery established on the coast; but they differ essentially in the manner of operation, if one can use this expression. - The 1859 system consisted of a submarine mine acting at will, but consequently entailing, since it was ignited directly by means of the electric spark, the obligation on the part of the observer, charged with transmitting it, to know the precise moment of the vessel's arrival in the torpedo's sphere of action; And although this problem had been solved with the help of the toposcope of the Archduke Leopold of Austria, Inspector General of Engineering, and other very ingenious electrical instruments, this system nevertheless required observatories built in advance and very experienced observers. It therefore presented serious disadvantages for the protection of a very extensive coastline that had to be quickly put in a state of defence. This was overcome by the use of spontaneously-acting submarine mines or torpedoes, in which the very impact of the ship produces the ignition without the observer having to determine whether the vessel is exactly within the sphere of action of the mine. He has only to recognise in advance whether the vessels in sight are friendly or enemy, in order to put his torpedoes in communication with the current, and to keep them ready to receive the spark which the mechanism, set in motion by the impulse of the vessel, will cause to burst, while remaining master of igniting it at will, if any circumstance should render it expedient. In this system, indeed, the torpedo can always be rendered harmless, or be kept ready to act under an external effort, or burst by the will of the observer himself: but for it to be maintained in these conditions, it is necessary to have an electrical apparatus of constant strength, ready day and night to give fire. The use of a special battery fitted with a coil makes this action constant and certain, and the arrangements of the apparatus, which ensures the arrival of the electric current to all the torpedoes of the line, and makes it possible to recognise whether the insulation of each one is sufficient and which are those which have exploded, in order to cut the communication wire immediately, which would otherwise weaken the energy of the electric current in an appreciable way, must be studied in a very particular way by the special men.
But in this body of work, the most interesting point and the very basis of the whole system, are the electric primers invented by Colonel d'Ebner. They are, in fact, so sensitive that they catch fire even with currents of an extremely low voltage. This sensitivity depends on: 1° the degree of flammability and conductivity of the charge; 2° the smallness of the gap through which the electric current must pass in the form of a spark. - A mixture composed of equal parts of antimony sulphide and potassium chlorate, to which is added a little lead, gives the first result, and simple and ingenious mechanical means, which photographs show in all the phases of the operation, make it possible to ensure the invariability, so important, of the distance between the two wires between which the spark emerges, and to regulate the conductivity of the charge in such a way as to obtain a very high degree of flammability.
With these primers, and it is especially in this that Colonel Ebner's preparations are called upon to render great service to industry, the regular and simultaneous ignition of the mines, whatever the quantity, is completely assured, whether one employs the electric friction machines which permit, thanks to the high voltage of their current, the ignition of a large number of mines placed in the same electric circuit, but which require skilful operators if their greatest effects are to be obtained, or if recourse is had to the magneto-electric machines of a new model, of the mechanic Markus, which can set fire simultaneously to fifteen primers placed in the same circuit, and which, not being accessible to dampness and requiring little care, are better suited to the needs of war or to certain railway or earthworks.
However, with that eminently practical spirit which distinguishes him, and this is a rare merit in a man of war, Colonel d'Ebner, wishing to obviate the disadvantages that friction machines could present, due to humidity, and the need to constantly maintain the various parts of the apparatus in perfect condition, while using the advantages presented by this type of machine, was able to develop a new method of working, while making use of the advantages of this kind of apparatus, has constructed, in addition to the machine of a very small model which is carried on the back like a bag and forms part of the armament of the Austrian engineers, an apparatus in which electricity is produced by the friction of a hardened rubber cylinder against fur cushions. The condenser is made of rubber and the whole unit is hermetically sealed in a sheet metal cylinder, which protects it from any humidity.
The restricted framework imposed on us obliges us to omit many curious things, many almost indispensable explanations: however, I would like to mention the apparatus for graphically solving the equators with an unknown of any degree, built by Captain Lill of the Engineers, and the pantographic apparatus of the same officer. Nearby are the beautiful maps sent as specimens by the Military Geographical Institute of Vienna, and a model of the battleship Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian. Our drawing reproduces this ship, which carried the pavilion of Rear Admiral Teghetoff at the battle of Lissa, where he sank the ship the King of Italy with a spur in the side. Two minutes were enough to swallow this magnificent ship, which disappeared as if it had been struck by one of Colonel Ebner's torpedoes. - And who knows, with all these new inventions, whether in the next war, and this is a prediction which every people, or at least those who act in their name, seem to have at the World's Fair of 1867, we shall not see torpedo-boats launching themselves during the night against the strongest ships, and making them disappear in a few seconds? - The future indeed belongs to electricity, and, in ten years perhaps, this still unknown force, completely tamed by man, will leave far behind the steam which now reigns supreme. Man alone does not change, if his forces remain the same to suffice for the ceaseless toil to which civilisation condemns his body and his mind. It is high time that our scientists made themselves masters of the mysterious fluid which fills the universe, to come to the aid of their fellow men, and to give them some infusion of the almighty combiner, which at the end of the day will restore elasticity to their spirit exhausted by daily toil.
This happy moment is far from us - let us seek consolation in the marvels that one encounters at every step in this feast of intelligence and matter, which is given every day at the Champ de Mars; and, among the beautiful and curious things that you must visit in this unrivalled palace, do not forget the Austrian Military Exhibition.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée