Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How Much Solomonic Gold Was There?

One of the featured items in the continuity among these four novels, is the "heavy gold" or "Solomonic gold". Some of it ended up as thousands of perforated square cards, which were last seen about to be deposited in the vault at Kinakuta (page 1074 of Cryptonomicon). Its nature was not revealed there, but only gradually through the books of The Baroque Cycle. All of the mentions of large quantities of the gold appear in the Confusion.

The first explicit appearance of the gold was on the Viceroy's brig (pages 192 ff). It had just been captured by the "Cabal" of galley slaves, as the first step in their "Plan" to win their freedom. There was not enough information given to allow any reasonable estimate of the amount. We are told only that it was so massive that "Most of their previous cargo and ballast had been thrown overboard ...."

The next appearance was after the galleot arrived at Cairo (pages 227 ff). The augmented Cabal (now fifteen), and Nyazi's clansmen (perhaps about three dozen): "... all got busy pulling the gold-crates out of the galleot and putting them on the camels, which took no more than half an hour." As they travelled through Cairo: "Nyazi's caravan, three dozen horses and camels strong, armed to the teeth, laden with tons of gold, was nothing here." This does provide information for an estimate.

There are conflicting statements online about the capabilities of pack animals, and almost none of them cite an original source. An intermediate value appears at . "A fully grown camel can weigh up to 700kg/1542lbs" "A camel can carry as much as 450kg/990lbs, but a usual and more comfortable cargo weight is 150kgs/330lbs." This maximum load seems rather large at about 64% of body weight, but it may be possible for the short trip involved in the story.

I don't know where the horses came from, but they may have been carrying gold too. Perhaps the most authoritative source for their capacity was President (General) U. S. Grant, in his Personal Memoirs. He asserted that a pack horse could carry 300 pounds across rough terrain. This was undoubtedly a conservative value. Perhaps for this short trip along the streets of Cairo, a horse could manage 500 pounds. If we assume 4 horses (definitely plural) and 32 camels, their total load was about 34,000 pounds. However, that load could not have been all gold. There had to be packsaddles or frames, padding, ropes, etc., as well as the crates. This 'tare' may have been 15% or more, so that the net mass of gold was less than 13 tonnes.

All of this gold was hidden among the haystacks in the stables of the caravanserai. At one point during the battle and fire, Jack "...estimated that somewhat more than half of the gold had been recovered." However, his companions ".., knew where every last bar was hid, and were making sure that none were missing." After heavy fighting, "... they were able to drive away from the stables--a cyclone of flame now--with four of the original six gold-carts." Only those four carts reached the boat. After the boat escaped down the Nile, it entered "... the marshy expanses to the east. At the end of that day, they made rendezvous with a small caravan of Nyazi's people, and there a share of the gold was loaded onto their camels."

It is difficult to know how much that share may have been. Several of the original Cabal were dead or missing, and ten men remained on the boat, three of them recently added. Nyazi certainly deserved a full share, because without the help of his clansmen at the caravanserai, much less of the gold could have been brought out. There must have been less than 8 tonnes of gold still on the boat, as it entered the Red Sea.

The capture of the boat, by the Malabar pirates of Queen Kottakkal, was described only in conversations later (pages 454-456). There was no description of the transfer of the gold to her treasury, nor of the negotiations by which she was convinced to invest in the Cabal's Plan, by helping them to build the ship Minerva.

The final appearance of all the gold in one place was as the sheathing on the hull of Minerva, as she departed from Qwghlm (page 796). Stephenson gave us no explicit information about the dimensions of Minerva, other than that she carried 44 guns. Perhaps we can compare her to another well known ship of literature. That was Lydia, the 36-gun frigate commanded by Horatio Hornblower, in the first-written story of that series by Cecil Scott Forester. Forester actually didn't do any better with dimensions than Stephenson, but the omission was corrected by C. Northcote Parkinson, in his novel The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower (Little, Brown and Company, 1970, page 124). "The Lydia was a middle-sized Fifth Rate built at Woolwich in 1796 to the design of Sir William Rule. She measured 951 tons and 143 feet long, mounted twenty-six 18-pounders on the gun-deck, eight 9-pounders on the quarterdeck, and two 12-pounders on the forecastle. She was established for a crew of 274 men ...."

Minerva's original guns were described inadequately as "... forty-four large naval cannons, preferably of most modern and finest sort, ..." (page 578). I am sure that Jan Vroom specified exactly the caliber of the guns for which he was designing Minerva. The hull had to be strong enough to manage their recoil, but not stronger than necessary. The guns on Minerva would have to be spaced about 20% closer together than those on Lydia, in order to be accommodated on the same length of deck. In that case, they would be smaller than 18-pounders, and could not appropriately be called "large naval cannons".

Minerva under construction (page 577) was described as "Being so long and so rakish, she had to be narrow--quite a bit of volume was sacrificed for that." "Such a ship can pay for her upkeep only if she is hauling items of small bulk and great value." On the other hand, Lydia was strictly a warship. She had to carry only those things necessary for her to fight: crew, gunpowder, shot, food, water, firewood, and materials to make repairs. Minerva had to carry all of that, plus a cargo, however small. Thus Minerva seems to have been both longer and wider than Lydia. In addition, Minerva was notably V-shaped near the keel (page 576). Altogether, the area of Lydia's sheathing (copper), would be a lower limit for the area of Minerva's sheathing.

From Lydia's length and displacement, one can estimate the average cross-sectional area of her hull, below the waterline, as about 20 square meters. The shortest curve which can enclose that area, between vertical sides of the hull above water, is a semicircle (flat near the keel). Therefore, the smallest possible wetted area for the hull was about 500 square meters. Using 1/8 inch as the thickness of the sheathing (page 145 of The System of the World), and 19.3 as the specific gravity of the gold, there must have been at least 30 tonnes of gold on Minerva's hull.

This is much larger than the amount of Solomonic gold which the Cabal possessed, before it was captured by Queen Kottakkal's pirates. She must have supplied the extra gold from her own treasury, but that would have been ordinary gold. Thus one is faced with the question, were the two types of gold mixed together ("confused") before being hammered to the desired thickness, or were some of the sheathing plates made of one type of gold, and some of the other?


  1. I love reading these; thanks for writing them. Have you read Anathem yet? More philosophy than science fiction, in terms of its subject matter, but the last 1/3rd is heady stuff :)

  2. Thank you for your comment, the very first one to appear here. Indeed, I have read Anathem, several times. I even included a couple of topics from it in my postings. Of course, some other topics in Anathem are not at all appropriate for inclusion here.

  3. loved the novels,, but have to re educate myself regarding the historicity of these tales and ideas. Oddly read the Cryptonmicon FIrST the rest later. wondered if the heavy gold was an invention, or an insertion