IN 1452, SULTAN MEHMED II, the ruler of the rising Ottoman Empire, had a problem.1 While the Ottoman Sultanate had conquered most of the former Byzantine Empire's territory, the walls of Constantinople, the crown jewel of Asia Minor, still held. Mehmed II worried that despite the enormous naval and land forces he had amassed, including Bashi-bazouks and Janissaries, he could not breach the walls and conquer the city. His advisers brought a Hungarian engineer named Urban before him; Urban purported to have the ability to build the largest gun ever constructed for the purposes of battering down the walls of Constantinople. While the Ottoman military already had cannons, its production capabilities were reportedly inferior to the best in Europe. Urban told the Ottoman sultan, “Am I able to cast a cannon capable of throwing a ball or stone of sufficient size to batter the walls of Constantinople? I am not ignorant of their strength; but were they more solid than those of Babylon, I could oppose an engine of superior power: the position and management of that engine must be left to your engineers” (cited in Gibbon 1788/1974, chapter 68, 755). Given funding and authority by Mehmed II, Urban took charge of the Ottoman foundry at Adrianople and began construction of his cannon. On its completion, the cannon was brought by Ottoman engineers to the edge of the Bosphorus and, according to legend, it sank a Venetian ship with one shot. Mehmed II was impressed and authorized the construction of a still-larger cannon. Workers completed the cannon in time for the Siege of Constantinople, which began on April 2, 1453. Legend says the gun, named Mahometta, weighed almost a thousand pounds, and took between 60 and 140 oxen to move, 100 people to aim, and 2 hours to reload (Cipolla 1965, 94). The siege succeeded; the city fell on May 29, 1453.
There are two morals to this story relevant to this book, and neither of them is whether or not the cannon actually worked (it did not: on the second day of the siege the gun cracked, and by the fifth day at the latest it apparently no longer functioned). First, the Ottomans gained access to this particular cannon production technology through the diffusion of engineering knowledge from a Hungarian engineer. Mehmed II attempted to overcome a potential strategic weakness by adopting a new innovative technology that, combined with his siege tactics, could help him achieve his goals. Second, despite the impressive
1 Mehmed II is also spelled Mehmet II.