Introducing: Rocket Cat

Rocket Cat from 16th century manuscriptI’ve got three articles in draft form at the moment because once I start on a subject I tend to get distracted with associated subjects.  It’s a danger of writing about something you like for an audience generally less familiar with it.  So, today I have something simple:

Gunpowder is such a great invention.

The Chinese first used it in fireworks. The first European firearms were almost hilariously self-destructive. Sometimes they fired. Sometimes they even hit. The earliest required the lighting of fuse.  They suffered from poor range and worse aim, and sometimes they just exploded in the user’s face.

Cannon became useful much earlier as accuracy was less important. Frequently the target was a city wall, which should be even easier to hit than the broad side of a barn. You could also fire into lines of cavalry. Hitting someone was a plus, but just the sound of the explosions could startle a horse enough to throw its rider.

But there are so many other things you can do with gunpowder. Like strap it to a cat.

Feuer Buech, or “Fire Book” in English, provides illustrations of various kinds of 16th Century munitions. The manuscript can be examined in full on the University of Pennsylvania’s library website, where one reader presumably stumbled across the subtitle “cat and bird with rocket packs” and couldn’t stop laughing. The image has been slowly spreading on blogs and tumblr feeds ever since, presumably to the amused bewilderment of history buffs and cat lovers everywhere. (The Escapist)

Contrary to how the image might look, the intention is not to actually make the cat fly. The gunpowder pack is not a propellant.

It’s an incendiary device.

Startled man, 16th century manuscript
Man contemplating an army of rocket cats or, perhaps, reconsidering the notion of going into battle without pants.
From Feuer Buech.

The thought was to capture animals whose homes were in an enemy city, strap a pack of slowburning material to them, and let them go. Then, theoretically, the animals will return home, slipping through cracks far too small for a person or even to be noticed. There, they will set various flammables on fire as they run through them.

As you might guess, this story doesn’t end well for the animals.

This was put forward for serious military consideration. Whether it was ever actually tried we don’t know. Presumably it wasn’t successful if they did.

I have no idea how long a cat-mounted gunpowder pack burns, but not overly long, I was gather. And since the point of this exercise is to cause serious damage to the city, I would think this plan would require a considerable number of cats, which leads to the rather comical image of an army of flaming cats scattering through town.

This is not the bizarre doodlings of a single artist.  In fact, they show up in a variety of sources roughly contemporary with Feuer Buech.  

Nor is this the only novel thought on explosive materials in Feuer Buech.  Here a man carries flaming material into battle, apparently prepared to hurl it at an enemy.

Man with Explosive, 16th century manuscript
This can really only end in tragedy.
From Feuer Buech.


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