On July 16, 1945, a pack of scientists sat worried in the high desert of New Mexico. Some of the greatest minds of their generation, they created what they thought was the ultimate super weapon.
Yet no one was happy about it.
Some feared that this new “atomic bomb” would lead to the destruction of the Earth itself. Others thought that the atmosphere would ignite, engulfing the planet in a ball of fire. Still others thought the darn thing was a dud—there was no way a thing that small can cause the amount of destruction they had projected.
Yet once the countdown finished, the genie (or the demon, depending on your point of view) was out of the bottle.
The successful test of the first nuclear weapon at the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico changed history. It was then conceivable that a weapon can be created that was so destructive and so terrifying as to render warfare obsolete. Yet even after the Cold War, we continue to feel the lasting effects of these weapons—on our budgets, our environment, our foreign policy, and our everyday lives.
The search for the one super weapon, the “ultimate weapon”, has existed since the dawn of man. In a few decades, perhaps sooner, a weapon will be developed that supersedes the atomic missile. Let’s hope the US Air Force is building a Death Star, so we can wipe out countries that are a little too fresh. Until that time comes, here’s a few of the “ultimate weapons” of history:
The Chariot—Blitzkrieg was not a German invention (sorry, Adolf). The chariot was the perfect example of making the best of a bad situation. The Hyksos invaded Egypt in the 16th Century BCE and brought with them a light cart that provided quick mobility. The Egyptians took the technology and perfected the first terror weapon in human history. Gangs of chariots zooming down the field, with archers and spearmen in tow; the Egyptians were the first to utilize speed and overwhelming force in battle.
The Trireme—I knock the film 300 constantly, but here the offense is legitimate. Xerxes was not defeated because of Gerard Butler and his scantily-clad Spartans, but rather due to an innovation in the Athenian navy. The trireme was a fast, powerful galley vessel with three rows of rowers and a stout ramming prow. These vessels not only defeated Xerxes at the straits of Salamis, but also propelled another half-century of Athenian dominance in the Mediterranean, spreading generic gyros and bland tzatziki sauce across an empire.
“Greek Fire”—I don’t mean the feeling you get when you see Stavros, the hot waiter at that Astoria diner. Greek Fire was a true wonder weapon, used by the Byzantines for centuries. Its composition and origins remain clouded in mystery, another plus if you want to spread wanton fear in your enemies. Greek Fire managed to keep the Islamic armies at bay for centuries, until the Turks basically figured out its nothing more than a crude flamethrower.
The Trebuchet—used by the Chinese and Romans but later perfected in Medieval Europe. If you needed to breach a wall, or lay siege to a castle, the trebuchet was often your only option. Part slingshot, part catapult, it was designed to hurl projectiles over long distances at a high arc, similar to a low-altitude bombing. It was also used in a crude form of biological warfare: sling a rotting, disease cow carcass over the wall and let the fun begin.
The Firearm—the Chinese developed gunpowder around the second century CE, but firecrackers and bottle rockets can only do so much. The firearm—first the cannon, then the musket—began showing up on European battlefields in the late 14th Century. Heavily armed knights often had a good laugh at these toys, manned mostly by peasant conscripts or the local militia. They weren’t laughing for long, not after they noticed the power and range of those weird brass and iron tubes.
The Rifle—early firearms were no better than blowguns with a gunpowder ignition. In the 18th Century, German hunters developed a musket with a spiral groove in the barrel to spin the bullet, providing increased speed, power and accuracy. These hunters settled in America, particularly in Pennsylvania, where their invention found fans in American colonists, frontiersmen, trappers, and the Continental Army. The rifle was especially useful in hunting game and hunting British officers. Now that’s not very sporting, is it?
The “Ship of the Line”—this was the first true “weapon of mass destruction.” So called because of their single-file formation, “Ships of the Line” were giant sailing fortresses, often carrying over 100 cannon a piece. The British navy were masters of this type of vessel, using “ships of the line” as protective convoys for Caribbean trade, in naval warfare with the French, Dutch and Spanish, and as intimidation for compliance (think Revolutionary Boston and New York). Its high water mark came in 1805, as hundreds of British and French behemoths clashed at the straits of Trafalgar. The British victory made Horatio Nelson a martyred hero and Trafalgar the name of a London square that drives motorists nuts.
The Iron Ship—Leave it to a civil war in the United States to render every navy afloat obsolete in a matter of months. The Confederates, with few ships in their navy, took old wooden ships and slapped iron sheets on its sides, with gun ports on two sides. Their first, an old Union ship called the USS Merrimack, rechristened the CSS Virginia, terrorized the southern Atlantic coastline. The federals countered with the USS Monitor, a ship made entirely of iron with a revolving gun turret. The world watched in awe—metal could indeed float, with terrifying consequences.
The Machine Gun—developed by different inventors at different times, the machine gun came very close to being the “mother of all weapons”, the weapon that would render war obsolete. American inventors Richard Gatling (in 1862) and Hiram Maxim (1896) developed weapons that fired multiple rounds in succession. Gatling’s gun required multiple barrels and hand cranking. Maxim’s model was self-propelled, with a single water-cooled barrel and belts of ammunition to feed into the gun. Its grand moment came in World War I, when centuries of tactics and strategy, tactics dating back to Napoleon, were cut to ribbons in the spray of machine gun fire.
The Tank—armored vehicles are not a new concept; horses and other pack animals carried armored plating for centuries. Yet when merged with automotive technology, heavy artillery and machine guns, you have a mobile killing machine. The British first introduced the tank in 1917, and subsequent variations have spread destruction across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. It also provided another setting for Donald Sutherland to play a drugged-out weirdo (Kelly’s Heroes.)
The Heavy Bomber—as the machine gun was the poster boy for World War I, the heavy bomber takes the prize for World War II. If there was one machine responsible for the majority of death and destruction in a single war, this would be it. German Heinkel He-177s, British Avro Lancasters, American B-17s, B-24s and B-29s laid down more ordinance over Europe than every other European conflict combined. It’s also responsible for the infamous bombing of Dresden. Those monsters, how could you bomb all those porcelain figurines?
The Kalashnikov AK-47 Assault Rifle—another rifle? Just hear me out. The Soviets developed this Assault rifle at the tail end of World War II as a standard issue semi-automatic rifle for the Red Army. It’s rugged, reliable, cheap to make, and easy to maintain. The perfect weapon for the Communist on a budget, the AK-47 is the most ubiquitous firearm in the world. In this case, don’t think quality, think quantity: find me a part of the world where you couldn’t get your mitts on an AK for a reasonable price…even a ridiculously low price. These babies were going for $100 a pop in Sierra Leone not too long ago.
As usual, I probably missed many other candidates for the “ultimate weapon” of its time. My apologies to the Greek phalanx formation, various Roman siege weapons, the longbow, the Mongol compound bow, the fighter plane, the heavy artillery of World War I (“Big Bertha”, or the “Paris Gun”), submarines, guided missiles, stealth technology and the neutron bomb. Just to name a few.