A Blast from the Past

CEBOOKMARK Cara/Andrea here,

With the holidays fast approaching, the swirl of shopping and revelries  can make things a bit hectic. Well, on top of that, I’ve been hit with some untimely edit deadlines, so I am hoping readers will, in the spirit of goodwill and good cheer, accept an Oldie but Goodie for today’s post. I promise that the new year will bring foray into history, but for y today, we’re going to rekindle a look at gunpowder, seing as the New Year will be welcomed in across the world with lots of fireworks!

So, without further ado . . .

A Blast from the Past
Gunpowder was invented in China sometime around the ninth century. Ironically enough, the alchemists of the time were looking to create a potion for eternal youth. Instead they ended up with something they called the “fire drug.”  Gunpowder consists of three basic elements—saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal. The proportions were tweaked over the centuries to create more explosive power, but until the advent of our modern synthetic propellants, the basic formula remained unchanged.

Fire lance Over the years, Chinese military leaders came to realize that the invention could be used as a formidable weapon. By the 1200s, gunpowder “bombs” filled with rocks or bits of metal were being thrown or dropped on an enemy. The Chinese also proved quite inventive in naming their new arsenal. Some of my favorites include “Bandit-Burning, Vision-Confusing Magic Fire-Ball” and “Bone-Burning and Bruising Fire Oil Magic Bomb”. Next came fire lances, which could launch arrows or spears. I’m particularly fond of “Nine-Arrow Heart-Piercing Magic-Poison Thunderous Fire Erupter.” The name alone must have been enough to rout an opposing army! The first gun on record is a small cannon, which dates from 1288.

A Booming Discovery
It’s not exactly certain how gunpowder came to the West, but the first reference to it in Europe appeared in 1267, when Roger Bacon, the famous medieval thinker, made mention of it in a letter to the Pope. By 1300 there is written evidence of a formula.
 
SiegeOfOrleans In 1346, Edward III of England used cannons to help his army of knights and archers defeat the much larger force of the French King. The Battle of Crecy is considered to mark the end of chivalry, as armor proved no match for the new weaponry. The use of cannons quickly spread throughout Europe.

Throughout the next few centuries, the methods for grinding gunpowder were refined, in order to add more force and stability. At first, powder was dampened to a paste, then formed into balls, which lasted longer than dry powder and were easier to transport. However, the process of “corning,” or forcing the paste through different sized screens to create “grains”  was invented, and it remains the standard to this day. (Gunpowder is corned according to the intended weapon.)

EarlyCannon Casting Call
The technique of casting metal for cannons also underwent great changes. Early European bombards grew to mammoth proportions. (“Mad Margaret” weighed 18 tons and had a barrel 16 feet long.} By the Renaissance, the technology had evolved enough that the smooth bore muzzle-loading cannon of the era would remain basically unchanged until the late 1800s. (Both Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were involved in designing fortifications to withstand cannonfire.)

Not to be outdone by their Chinese counterparts, European gunners were quite inventive when it came to naming their weapons. “The Brutal Butcher” is one early moniker, and Henry VIII had a battery of cannons known as “The Twelve Apostles.”

The earliest hand guns began appearing around 1400. At first they were heavy, awkward weapons that needed a tripod to hold them up. Various mechanisms were invented to  hold the gunpowder charge, as well as spark the initial tiny explosion needed to propel a bullet through the gun barrel. Matchlocks, wheellocks, flintlocks . . . don’t ask. Suffice it to say that man was quite inventive in creating a lethal weapon.

The Devil's Distillate
The moral impact of gunpowder was not lost on theologians and intellectuals. Many called it “the devil’s distillate ” and blamed it for the death of chivalry. The stench and smoke given off by gunpowder added to its Satanic image. Echoing modern sentiment, a number of people bemoaned the fact that gunpowder made “violence too freely available.”

Akbarnama During the Age of Exploration, Vasco de Gama helped establish a lucrative trading empire for Portugal through use of gunpowder, and other European seafaring nations were quick to follow. The Conquistadors conquered the mighty Aztecs with a tiny force of soldiers and the “devil’s distillate.” Farther north, the French and English used their guns to carve out colonies in the New World. And in Africa, gunpowder was instrumental in allowing the slave trade to begin.

Up in Smoke
By the 1700s, war had become a carefully choreographed dance of opposing armies. Each soldier was now armed with a firearm, and arrayed in elegant, precise formations, they would march to within close range and exchange ritual fire until casualties forced one side to withdraw. Conflicts were escalating. And so was the carnage. (On a brighter note, George Frederich Handel was commissioned to create the lovely “Music for Royal Fireworks” in celebration of the 1748 Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession.)

Brown Bess The famous American Revolutionary War phrase, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” was not just manly bravado. It was based on the fact that muskets are wildly inaccurate at anything other than close range. That’s because it’s a smooth bore weapon (the inside of the barrel is, well, smooth!)

Rifling—which refers to a circular groove cut into the metal—imparts spin to a bullet, which adds stability to its flight and thus makes it far more likely to hit its target. The British thought the Americans—and their show of nascent Yankee ingenuity—were very unsporting to use their accurate hunting rifles to pick off Redcoats from great distances.

Re-equipping whole armies with the new technology was frightfully expensive, so most military forces fought with smooth bore muskets until well into the 1800s. The classic British “Brown Bess” musket was first issued in 1703 and remained in use for 140 years. A flintlock weapon, it could be fired every 12 seconds by a well- trained soldier.

But I digress . . .

Gunpowder1 A Force of Nature
As the Napoleonic Wars engulfed Europe, the production of gunpowder became a critical matter. Saltpeter is a bacterial waste product and occurs naturally in soil. But war demands LOTS of saltpeter. The substance is also found in human and animal waste. (Those of you who are squeamish might want to skip over the next paragraph.) In France, government officials called “Petermen” had the right to dig up a farmer’s barnyard to collect nitrate-rich soil—a law that was bitterly resented. 

The English, through the East India trading empire, imported large amounts of cheap bird dung from India for the task. Even so, during the height of the wars, the government considered passing a law that would have required innkeepers to collect the urine of their patrons in barrels. (Brandy was said to produce the most desirable, er, raw material.)

By the 1820s, the old gunpowder cartridge—a greased paper cylinder filled with powder and bullet that was rammed by hand down the barrel of a musket—was giving way to a new technology. The “percussion cap” bullet used a small amount of gunpowder at the base of a metal cylinder. The strike of a gun’s hammer would ignite the powder and fire the metal projectile.

Battle Combined with other innovations from inventors such as Samuel Colt, firearms became even more deadly. Colt’s invention of a multiple chamber to hold bullets allowed the development of the “six-shooter.” By the time of the American Civil War, armies were equipped with all manner of weapons that could fire with frightening rapidity. Again, the death toll in war grew to gruesome proportions.

Blackout
Traditional black powder became obsolete in the late 1800s. Alfred Nobel—of Nobel Prize fame—developed the use of nitroglycerin, or dynamite, which was far more effective for blasting in mines and civil engineering. Modern chemistry also led to the discovery of  better, more powerful “smokeless” powder to use in guns.

Today, gunpowder is still used in fireworks and for reenactments of traditional battles. The next time you watch a Fourth of July celebration, breath deep and smell the acrid scent of burned powder. Listen to the thunderous bangs and watch the thick smoke cloud the air. Let it spark your imagination, and carry you back in history to the epic battles of Bunker Hill, Borodino and Waterloo. It’s a living, breathing reminder of man’s incredible—and sometimes frightening—creative spirit.

Fireworks When asked to name the most influential inventions in history, most intellectuals include gunpowder and printing among their choices. As both an author and an aficionado of history, I would have to agree. What historical inventions do you find fascinating? Terrifying?

95 thoughts on “A Blast from the Past”

  1. Very interesting! There are quite a few grusome inventions over the centuries, kind of makes you wonder about the human mind, eh? My dad went through a phase where he ‘played around’ (responsably, of course) with a black powder gun – us kids thought it was the coolest thing to watch him melt and form his own balls, and load the powder, not to mention the big bang complete with smoke. My mom thought it left much to be desired, especially when he would give demonstrations out in the garage, but it really was a cool way to experience history.

    Reply
  2. Very interesting! There are quite a few grusome inventions over the centuries, kind of makes you wonder about the human mind, eh? My dad went through a phase where he ‘played around’ (responsably, of course) with a black powder gun – us kids thought it was the coolest thing to watch him melt and form his own balls, and load the powder, not to mention the big bang complete with smoke. My mom thought it left much to be desired, especially when he would give demonstrations out in the garage, but it really was a cool way to experience history.

    Reply
  3. Very interesting! There are quite a few grusome inventions over the centuries, kind of makes you wonder about the human mind, eh? My dad went through a phase where he ‘played around’ (responsably, of course) with a black powder gun – us kids thought it was the coolest thing to watch him melt and form his own balls, and load the powder, not to mention the big bang complete with smoke. My mom thought it left much to be desired, especially when he would give demonstrations out in the garage, but it really was a cool way to experience history.

    Reply
  4. Very interesting! There are quite a few grusome inventions over the centuries, kind of makes you wonder about the human mind, eh? My dad went through a phase where he ‘played around’ (responsably, of course) with a black powder gun – us kids thought it was the coolest thing to watch him melt and form his own balls, and load the powder, not to mention the big bang complete with smoke. My mom thought it left much to be desired, especially when he would give demonstrations out in the garage, but it really was a cool way to experience history.

    Reply
  5. Very interesting! There are quite a few grusome inventions over the centuries, kind of makes you wonder about the human mind, eh? My dad went through a phase where he ‘played around’ (responsably, of course) with a black powder gun – us kids thought it was the coolest thing to watch him melt and form his own balls, and load the powder, not to mention the big bang complete with smoke. My mom thought it left much to be desired, especially when he would give demonstrations out in the garage, but it really was a cool way to experience history.

    Reply
  6. Interesting info. Though I think I’ll keep my thoughts on the ooohh & aaahh factors while watching fireworks rather than it’s less appealing and more messy history. More enjoyable (if not more interesting) that way. 🙂

    Reply
  7. Interesting info. Though I think I’ll keep my thoughts on the ooohh & aaahh factors while watching fireworks rather than it’s less appealing and more messy history. More enjoyable (if not more interesting) that way. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Interesting info. Though I think I’ll keep my thoughts on the ooohh & aaahh factors while watching fireworks rather than it’s less appealing and more messy history. More enjoyable (if not more interesting) that way. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Interesting info. Though I think I’ll keep my thoughts on the ooohh & aaahh factors while watching fireworks rather than it’s less appealing and more messy history. More enjoyable (if not more interesting) that way. 🙂

    Reply
  10. Interesting info. Though I think I’ll keep my thoughts on the ooohh & aaahh factors while watching fireworks rather than it’s less appealing and more messy history. More enjoyable (if not more interesting) that way. 🙂

    Reply
  11. JJ, I think that’s very cool that you got to experience a black powder gun “up close and personal” I’ve handled vintage weapons at workshops, but after reading all the historical battle accounts about the smell and intensity of the smoke, I’d like to get a feel for it myself. (I haven’t gone to a battle enactment, which I suppose is an option.)
    Fireworks give a little hint of what it must have been like. But I’d still like to see exactly what happens when a musket is fired.
    Yes, call me the research geek

    Reply
  12. JJ, I think that’s very cool that you got to experience a black powder gun “up close and personal” I’ve handled vintage weapons at workshops, but after reading all the historical battle accounts about the smell and intensity of the smoke, I’d like to get a feel for it myself. (I haven’t gone to a battle enactment, which I suppose is an option.)
    Fireworks give a little hint of what it must have been like. But I’d still like to see exactly what happens when a musket is fired.
    Yes, call me the research geek

    Reply
  13. JJ, I think that’s very cool that you got to experience a black powder gun “up close and personal” I’ve handled vintage weapons at workshops, but after reading all the historical battle accounts about the smell and intensity of the smoke, I’d like to get a feel for it myself. (I haven’t gone to a battle enactment, which I suppose is an option.)
    Fireworks give a little hint of what it must have been like. But I’d still like to see exactly what happens when a musket is fired.
    Yes, call me the research geek

    Reply
  14. JJ, I think that’s very cool that you got to experience a black powder gun “up close and personal” I’ve handled vintage weapons at workshops, but after reading all the historical battle accounts about the smell and intensity of the smoke, I’d like to get a feel for it myself. (I haven’t gone to a battle enactment, which I suppose is an option.)
    Fireworks give a little hint of what it must have been like. But I’d still like to see exactly what happens when a musket is fired.
    Yes, call me the research geek

    Reply
  15. JJ, I think that’s very cool that you got to experience a black powder gun “up close and personal” I’ve handled vintage weapons at workshops, but after reading all the historical battle accounts about the smell and intensity of the smoke, I’d like to get a feel for it myself. (I haven’t gone to a battle enactment, which I suppose is an option.)
    Fireworks give a little hint of what it must have been like. But I’d still like to see exactly what happens when a musket is fired.
    Yes, call me the research geek

    Reply
  16. Donna, I agree that fireworks is definitely the right use for gunpowder rather than firing bullets. But I’m curious on a purely intellectual level on what a line of infantry firing in tandem would look like. (Having just finished the whole Sharpe series, I’m intrigued by the descriptions of smoke and smells. But one whiff would probably be enough.)

    Reply
  17. Donna, I agree that fireworks is definitely the right use for gunpowder rather than firing bullets. But I’m curious on a purely intellectual level on what a line of infantry firing in tandem would look like. (Having just finished the whole Sharpe series, I’m intrigued by the descriptions of smoke and smells. But one whiff would probably be enough.)

    Reply
  18. Donna, I agree that fireworks is definitely the right use for gunpowder rather than firing bullets. But I’m curious on a purely intellectual level on what a line of infantry firing in tandem would look like. (Having just finished the whole Sharpe series, I’m intrigued by the descriptions of smoke and smells. But one whiff would probably be enough.)

    Reply
  19. Donna, I agree that fireworks is definitely the right use for gunpowder rather than firing bullets. But I’m curious on a purely intellectual level on what a line of infantry firing in tandem would look like. (Having just finished the whole Sharpe series, I’m intrigued by the descriptions of smoke and smells. But one whiff would probably be enough.)

    Reply
  20. Donna, I agree that fireworks is definitely the right use for gunpowder rather than firing bullets. But I’m curious on a purely intellectual level on what a line of infantry firing in tandem would look like. (Having just finished the whole Sharpe series, I’m intrigued by the descriptions of smoke and smells. But one whiff would probably be enough.)

    Reply
  21. I suppose the discovery of penicillin doesn’t qualify as an “invention,” but it was certainly among the most significant advances, and I’ve always found fascinating the history of the drug, particularly the role of women scientists. The invention of the steam engine is another significant and fascinating historical moment.

    Reply
  22. I suppose the discovery of penicillin doesn’t qualify as an “invention,” but it was certainly among the most significant advances, and I’ve always found fascinating the history of the drug, particularly the role of women scientists. The invention of the steam engine is another significant and fascinating historical moment.

    Reply
  23. I suppose the discovery of penicillin doesn’t qualify as an “invention,” but it was certainly among the most significant advances, and I’ve always found fascinating the history of the drug, particularly the role of women scientists. The invention of the steam engine is another significant and fascinating historical moment.

    Reply
  24. I suppose the discovery of penicillin doesn’t qualify as an “invention,” but it was certainly among the most significant advances, and I’ve always found fascinating the history of the drug, particularly the role of women scientists. The invention of the steam engine is another significant and fascinating historical moment.

    Reply
  25. I suppose the discovery of penicillin doesn’t qualify as an “invention,” but it was certainly among the most significant advances, and I’ve always found fascinating the history of the drug, particularly the role of women scientists. The invention of the steam engine is another significant and fascinating historical moment.

    Reply
  26. Great suggestions, Janga. Penicillin has to rank right up there with a “discovery” that changed the world. Steam engine, too. And aerodynamics—engine and wings allowing flight. And of course, the internet has to be added—talk about a profound change in the way people can communicate through time and space.

    Reply
  27. Great suggestions, Janga. Penicillin has to rank right up there with a “discovery” that changed the world. Steam engine, too. And aerodynamics—engine and wings allowing flight. And of course, the internet has to be added—talk about a profound change in the way people can communicate through time and space.

    Reply
  28. Great suggestions, Janga. Penicillin has to rank right up there with a “discovery” that changed the world. Steam engine, too. And aerodynamics—engine and wings allowing flight. And of course, the internet has to be added—talk about a profound change in the way people can communicate through time and space.

    Reply
  29. Great suggestions, Janga. Penicillin has to rank right up there with a “discovery” that changed the world. Steam engine, too. And aerodynamics—engine and wings allowing flight. And of course, the internet has to be added—talk about a profound change in the way people can communicate through time and space.

    Reply
  30. Great suggestions, Janga. Penicillin has to rank right up there with a “discovery” that changed the world. Steam engine, too. And aerodynamics—engine and wings allowing flight. And of course, the internet has to be added—talk about a profound change in the way people can communicate through time and space.

    Reply
  31. Very interesting. San Diego recently had a program that traded unwanted guns for credit cards for groceries. Over a 100 guns were exchanged.

    Reply
  32. Very interesting. San Diego recently had a program that traded unwanted guns for credit cards for groceries. Over a 100 guns were exchanged.

    Reply
  33. Very interesting. San Diego recently had a program that traded unwanted guns for credit cards for groceries. Over a 100 guns were exchanged.

    Reply
  34. Very interesting. San Diego recently had a program that traded unwanted guns for credit cards for groceries. Over a 100 guns were exchanged.

    Reply
  35. Very interesting. San Diego recently had a program that traded unwanted guns for credit cards for groceries. Over a 100 guns were exchanged.

    Reply
  36. Movable type and the art of printing is, to me, one of the greatest inventions of all time. With it we can preserve our history, stories, hopes, dreams and all of the mistakes mankind has made over the years. You know what they say about those who don’t study history…
    The discovery and use of nuclear fission and fusion is the most frightening thing man has delved into to date. There are some things you truly wish could be undiscovered!
    Another great and fascinating post, Cara!

    Reply
  37. Movable type and the art of printing is, to me, one of the greatest inventions of all time. With it we can preserve our history, stories, hopes, dreams and all of the mistakes mankind has made over the years. You know what they say about those who don’t study history…
    The discovery and use of nuclear fission and fusion is the most frightening thing man has delved into to date. There are some things you truly wish could be undiscovered!
    Another great and fascinating post, Cara!

    Reply
  38. Movable type and the art of printing is, to me, one of the greatest inventions of all time. With it we can preserve our history, stories, hopes, dreams and all of the mistakes mankind has made over the years. You know what they say about those who don’t study history…
    The discovery and use of nuclear fission and fusion is the most frightening thing man has delved into to date. There are some things you truly wish could be undiscovered!
    Another great and fascinating post, Cara!

    Reply
  39. Movable type and the art of printing is, to me, one of the greatest inventions of all time. With it we can preserve our history, stories, hopes, dreams and all of the mistakes mankind has made over the years. You know what they say about those who don’t study history…
    The discovery and use of nuclear fission and fusion is the most frightening thing man has delved into to date. There are some things you truly wish could be undiscovered!
    Another great and fascinating post, Cara!

    Reply
  40. Movable type and the art of printing is, to me, one of the greatest inventions of all time. With it we can preserve our history, stories, hopes, dreams and all of the mistakes mankind has made over the years. You know what they say about those who don’t study history…
    The discovery and use of nuclear fission and fusion is the most frightening thing man has delved into to date. There are some things you truly wish could be undiscovered!
    Another great and fascinating post, Cara!

    Reply
  41. My favorite invention is email. I love email. I’m not a people person, so talking to someone in person is hard for me. Although making a cold call terrifies me, I think nothing of sending an email to anyone.

    Reply
  42. My favorite invention is email. I love email. I’m not a people person, so talking to someone in person is hard for me. Although making a cold call terrifies me, I think nothing of sending an email to anyone.

    Reply
  43. My favorite invention is email. I love email. I’m not a people person, so talking to someone in person is hard for me. Although making a cold call terrifies me, I think nothing of sending an email to anyone.

    Reply
  44. My favorite invention is email. I love email. I’m not a people person, so talking to someone in person is hard for me. Although making a cold call terrifies me, I think nothing of sending an email to anyone.

    Reply
  45. My favorite invention is email. I love email. I’m not a people person, so talking to someone in person is hard for me. Although making a cold call terrifies me, I think nothing of sending an email to anyone.

    Reply
  46. Yes, the internet, and all it’s facets like email, has certainly changed the way people communicate. Linda. I’m like you and tend to be shy, so in ways it really is a godsend. But I’m also aware of the pitfalls. I think there’s a danger in disconnecting from real conversations—LOL does not replace the sound of shared laughter with friends.

    Reply
  47. Yes, the internet, and all it’s facets like email, has certainly changed the way people communicate. Linda. I’m like you and tend to be shy, so in ways it really is a godsend. But I’m also aware of the pitfalls. I think there’s a danger in disconnecting from real conversations—LOL does not replace the sound of shared laughter with friends.

    Reply
  48. Yes, the internet, and all it’s facets like email, has certainly changed the way people communicate. Linda. I’m like you and tend to be shy, so in ways it really is a godsend. But I’m also aware of the pitfalls. I think there’s a danger in disconnecting from real conversations—LOL does not replace the sound of shared laughter with friends.

    Reply
  49. Yes, the internet, and all it’s facets like email, has certainly changed the way people communicate. Linda. I’m like you and tend to be shy, so in ways it really is a godsend. But I’m also aware of the pitfalls. I think there’s a danger in disconnecting from real conversations—LOL does not replace the sound of shared laughter with friends.

    Reply
  50. Yes, the internet, and all it’s facets like email, has certainly changed the way people communicate. Linda. I’m like you and tend to be shy, so in ways it really is a godsend. But I’m also aware of the pitfalls. I think there’s a danger in disconnecting from real conversations—LOL does not replace the sound of shared laughter with friends.

    Reply
  51. This was really fascinating. I’m terrified of fire and don’t particularly like explosive noises. Fireworks are illegal where I grew up, but that didn’t stop my dad from setting them off. The cops came one year, which made me even more scared of fireworks. If I can see them from my living room window, I’ll watch, but I won’t go out of my way to see them.

    Reply
  52. This was really fascinating. I’m terrified of fire and don’t particularly like explosive noises. Fireworks are illegal where I grew up, but that didn’t stop my dad from setting them off. The cops came one year, which made me even more scared of fireworks. If I can see them from my living room window, I’ll watch, but I won’t go out of my way to see them.

    Reply
  53. This was really fascinating. I’m terrified of fire and don’t particularly like explosive noises. Fireworks are illegal where I grew up, but that didn’t stop my dad from setting them off. The cops came one year, which made me even more scared of fireworks. If I can see them from my living room window, I’ll watch, but I won’t go out of my way to see them.

    Reply
  54. This was really fascinating. I’m terrified of fire and don’t particularly like explosive noises. Fireworks are illegal where I grew up, but that didn’t stop my dad from setting them off. The cops came one year, which made me even more scared of fireworks. If I can see them from my living room window, I’ll watch, but I won’t go out of my way to see them.

    Reply
  55. This was really fascinating. I’m terrified of fire and don’t particularly like explosive noises. Fireworks are illegal where I grew up, but that didn’t stop my dad from setting them off. The cops came one year, which made me even more scared of fireworks. If I can see them from my living room window, I’ll watch, but I won’t go out of my way to see them.

    Reply
  56. Though we heard a few firecrackers in the farest reach of the neighborhood, the biggest bang for the New Year came from the elementary school across the street, a test explosion by the county blasting bedrock for a new wing on the school.
    And, that was just a test, more explosions to come in ‘2011!

    Reply
  57. Though we heard a few firecrackers in the farest reach of the neighborhood, the biggest bang for the New Year came from the elementary school across the street, a test explosion by the county blasting bedrock for a new wing on the school.
    And, that was just a test, more explosions to come in ‘2011!

    Reply
  58. Though we heard a few firecrackers in the farest reach of the neighborhood, the biggest bang for the New Year came from the elementary school across the street, a test explosion by the county blasting bedrock for a new wing on the school.
    And, that was just a test, more explosions to come in ‘2011!

    Reply
  59. Though we heard a few firecrackers in the farest reach of the neighborhood, the biggest bang for the New Year came from the elementary school across the street, a test explosion by the county blasting bedrock for a new wing on the school.
    And, that was just a test, more explosions to come in ‘2011!

    Reply
  60. Though we heard a few firecrackers in the farest reach of the neighborhood, the biggest bang for the New Year came from the elementary school across the street, a test explosion by the county blasting bedrock for a new wing on the school.
    And, that was just a test, more explosions to come in ‘2011!

    Reply

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