Paris-Montreal-Babylon: The Modernist Genealogies of Gerald Bull

babylon

In the mid-1980s, not long after his release from a U.S. prison, Gerald Bull — the former McGill engineering professor turned international arms dealer — sat down to write two redemptive histories: a thousand-page autobiography designed to exonerate him of his alleged crimes; and a technical genealogy that linked his controversial research with an icon of early twentieth-century modernity, the Paris Guns. The German long-range guns that shelled Paris in the spring of 1918 were marvels of engineering and symbols of scientific and industrial power. Deployed as weapons of psychological warfare against “the capital of modernity,” their shells were the first human-made objects to reach outer space. Bull saw them as the antecedents of his own ambiguous inventions — gargantuan cannons that straddled the line between scientific instruments and illicit weaponry. Conceived in Montreal, deployed in Barbados, redesigned and sold to South Africa, and eventually enlarged and destined for Saddam Hussein’s Project Babylon, they would ultimately lead to Bull’s assassination at the hands of government agents outside his Brussels apartment. 

In April 2015, I gave a talk on Bull as part of the conference, “Science, Technology, and the Modern in Canada.” The paper placed the long-standing ambiguity of Bull’s inventions within three larger genealogies that made it possible — an ambiguity about projectiles and what kinds of objects they represent; an uncertainty about islands and the activities that take place there; and a set of doubts about rationality and reason, particularly during the Cold War. Bull’s story illustrates the crucial historical and geographic connections between Canadian science and technology and the broader anxieties of the modern age.