Shooting with Ink

Shooting with Ink

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The trajectories of two shots. The diagram is a reproduction from the 1628 French edition of Diego Ufano’s wide-spread treatise on artillery, first published in 1612 in Spanish. The red trajectory for the cannon at the foot of the tower has been added. Its shape is identical to the shape of the trajectory of the shot fired from the top of the tower.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw an ever increasing output of gunner‘s manuals and military treatises. This genre extensively testifies the practical knowledge of gunnery of the time in which it transformed into a widely accessible, shared knowledge base, potentially available to people without first-hand experience with shooting cannons, such as Tartaglia or Galileo. However, shooting with ink is not shooting with a cannon. In these books, knowledge of gunnery was symbolically represented, be it in form of written language or in form of illustrations or tables. External symbolic representation entails abstraction and the reflection upon these representations is clearly distinct from the practical considerations regarding the actual act of shooting. Rather than representing practical knowledge of gunners directly, these works thus present knowledge about such knowledge. Moreover, knowledge from domains other than practice was brought into play in these works. Focusing mainly on external ballistics, i.e. the question of what path the projectile takes after it has left the mouth of the cannon, I will show to what extend we can nevertheless, at least partially, reconstruct the practical knowledge at the basis of these written works and discuss the problems related to such a reconstruction. Based on my example, I will argue that an appropriate epistemology of practical knowledge is missing and give indications of what it might look like. I will furthermore demonstrate how in these works recourse to practical knowledge served to fill particulars concerning the path of projectiles which were not determined or determinable by knowledge from other domains. At the same time, the practical knowledge provided the evidence against the background of which conflicts between the descriptions and constructions on paper and practical knowledge emerged, conflicts that were often explicitly acknowledged by the authors themselves. The realization of these conflicts, I argue, was a major stimulus and the attempts at their resolution a decisive mechanism for the development of theoretical knowledge in the field. Finally, it will be considered whether and to what extend these developments had impact on the practical knowledge of gunnery and its structure. 

  • Büttner, J. (2008). Big wheel keep on turning. Galilaeana, 5, 33-62.
  • Büttner, J. (2008). The pendulum as a challenging object in early-modern mechanics. In W. R. Laird, & S. Roux (Eds.), Mechanics and natural philosophy before the scientific revolution (pp. 223-237). Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Büttner, J., Damerow, P., Renn, J., & Schemmel, M. (2003). The challenging images of artillery: practical knowledge at the roots of the scientific revolution. In W. Lefèvre, J. Renn, & U. Schoepflin (Eds.), The power of images in early modern science (pp. 3-27). Basel [u.a.]: Birkhäuser.