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    Amy
  Mon Nov 25, 2013 12:07 pm
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So often it's the plot of a role playing game: the evil overlord, because they are evil, has created the Ultimate Weapon and is going to destroy the world with it. Despite having the technology to do this the rest of the world lives in relative dark ages – a world of farm hands and straw houses. Regardless of this apparent inability to fight back, the evil overlord feels need to create a weapon so powerful that it will only end in one thing: the destruction of the whole world.

This is not how history has worked thus far. We ended up at the atom bomb, but got there because we had other weapons we needed to defend ourselves against. Not to put anyone off having a mad evil overlord destroy the world in their games, I nonetheless want to discuss how we ourselves ended up with such weapons and what it could mean for an interesting backstory.

For the first few centuries – millenia even – there was very little military progress. Yes, we moved from spear heads made of rock to spear heads made of metal, and then proceeded to turn these into swords, but relatively speaking for much of the human age we have been slow to produce better weaponry. This all changed in the 18th century. After the invention of the rifle, we then had the flint-lock rifle – a much better gun than that which required a match to be lit in order to fire. Guns became central to all of the big wars, the first biggie being the French revolution. Napoleon was educated at a Lyvee in the art of artillery: big guns. A big user of grape shot (a great load of shrapnel in a cannon, working like a nail bomb) he made guns big, and to combat this, the other nations around France did the same. Eventually guns became ubiquitous and the main bulk of each of the big armies was made up of columns of riflemen.

When each army became the same, we reached what we call an “arms race”. The British started wearing green to camouflage themselves, so the French followed suit. One nation invented the machine gun: another followed up with a better machine gun. Artillery was countered with bigger artillery. Mass lines of troops countered with machine guns. Machine guns countered with barricades and battlements. Fortifications countered with tanks. Tanks countered with anti-tank guns. Anti-tank guns countered with air bombers. Air bombers countered with anti-aircraft guns. And, ultimately, everything countered with the atom bomb.

Throughout all of the ways the simplest winner was always going to be the better equipped one (be that equipped by technology, brainpower, or luck). To counter this countries always had to become better than their partner. America didn't invent the atom bomb on a whim: it had to, to counter the bombs being sent it's way beforehand. It was a deterrent (although, unfortunately, used twice at Nagasaki and Hiroshima). America had atom bombs, so Russia followed suit. America had several so Russia needed several more. Eventually this stockpiling lead to us having enough to wipe out the entire planet if we wanted to. It happened gradually, not all in one go.

An interesting villain might be one who creates a doomsday device because they're bored. A much more believable villain is one who has access to doomsday devices that have been built up over centuries of fighting, especially when the enemy is perfectly within their abilities to counter it with another doomsday device of their own.

It is unlikely that anybody would have happened upon an atom bomb in the middle of 1066 Hastings. Neither side needed them, and if they had access to machine guns they would have used those instead. Necessity is the mother of invention, that's true, but even more-so, needlessness is the mother of mundanity. We didn't need a doomsday device, so instead we settled on a Domesday book. (Ho, ho, ho.)


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