Gunpowder by Jack Kelly -- Book Review

Book Classification : Nonfiction - Science History - World History - Military History - Inventors - Entrepeneurs - Chemistry


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Gunpowder : Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics -
The History of the Explosive That Changed the World , by Jack Kelly
Hardcover - 288 pages
First Edition, April 2004
Published by Basic Books
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
ISBN 0-465-03718-6 / ISBN 0465037186

Book Review


About 26 centuries ago in China, Taoist alchemists, searching for an elixir to bestow immortality, accidentally invented a mixture that ignited explosively. The new "fire drug" was put to immediate use by people who sat around campfires and felt more secure when they tossed firecrackers into the flames, so that the noises would scare away any demons who might be lurking in the dark woods behind them. [1-4]

Buy the book Gunpowder : Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World by Jack Kelly

The formula for gunpowder has changed surprisingly little across several millennia. The sulfur, which ignites at a low temperature, is the first component to begin to burn. This releases enough heat to ignite the carbon component, usually charcoal -- here the ancient Chinese used dried honey. Finally, we have enough heat to cause combustion of the nitrate, typically saltpeter, which is potassium nitrate, KNO3. The burning of the nitrate releases oxygen as a byproduct , which feeds a chain reaction. All of the stored energy is released in a small fraction of a second. Out in the open, it merely goes fizzle and poof, but special results occur if the mixture is tightly confined. The rapidly expanding gasses will blow apart a closed container, which we call a bomb, or they will propel an obstructing material out of tube which is open at one end, which we call a gun. [4-6, 115]

The rest, literally, is history. The latest book by Jack Kelly is the story of a human civilization affected so profoundly by the existence of a simple black powder.


--   About the Author   --

Jack Kelly is both an accomplished novelist and an experienced author of popular history. He contributes regularly to American Heritage , and has written features about the gunpowder industry and the history of fireworks in America. He is author of the novels Mobtown , Line of Sight , and several others. Jack Kelly lives in Milan, New York.

-- From the Publisher

Shattering the popular myth that the Chinese of the Sung dynasty were interested only in fireworks, we see that it didn't take long for the defenders to find ways to hurl some of their new inventions at the Mongol invaders, with catapults, flaming arrows, and even "fire lances" (large spears fastened to small rockets.) [8-18]

Around the 13th Century, Arab trade probably resulted in gunpowder and its formula reaching Europe [22]. Europe returned the favor by bringing "Christian chivalry" to the Middle East, not merely at the point of the sword, but also with cannons. [19-20]

The invention also changed warfare among European nations, by lessening the usefulness of the crossbow [26] and even castle walls [21, 39-40]. Sometime later, to prevent the collapse of the system of feudalism, methods of construction were improved, to introduce castle walls which could repel cannonballs. [73] During the Middle Ages, the people of Europe were searching frantically everywhere organic material rots, from swamps to cesspools, for deposits of saltpeter, which is produced by bacteria during decomposition. [34]

Some guns became enormous; one of them fired a 500 pound stone. [41] Size mattered when both sides possessed the terrible weapon at the time the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. [49-53]

When King Charles VIII of France decided to invade Italy during the Renaissance, he selected bronze cannons and iron cannon balls. [55-56] "The Italian city-states," Kelly writes, "forced to make alliances of conveniences with the invaders, saw their autotomy fade." [56] One beneficial effect of that experience was that curious Italians, who were too educated to believe in alchemy, began to speculate seriously about the underlying principles of chemistry. [64] In parallel with gunpowder-inspired chemistry, the skills of metallurgy for casting bronze church bells were applied to gun improvements. [65] Around 1530 the musket arrived, in response to the wish for a weapon which could penetrate armor. [70-71].

Kelly recounts the journeys of Vasco Da Gama and other Portuguese global explorers to illustrate the "marriage of gunpowder and ships." [91] Naval use of the black powder established trade routes, as when the Sultan of Egypt in 1509 assembled a fleet to secure trade passage in the Indian Ocean. [93] The existence of the new weapons affected the design of ships, e.g., nearly bringing to an end the naval practice of boarding the ships of enemies during battle. [94] Later, the age of Armada warfare gave way to the era of the Napoleonic Wars. [100]

The author makes numerous observations about the sociology of war in the gunpowder age. Jack Kelly writes: "Violence at a distance sometimes gave warfare a surreal aspect. At the 1582 siege of Oudenaarde near Brussels, Alexander Farnese, the duke of Parma, set up a table near the trench works and invited guests for open-air dining." [77] Another effect was a rapid increase in the financial cost of warfare -- each firing of a 16th century cannon cost the treasury the equivalent of a soldier's monthly wages. [78] Some authors criticized gunpowder for ending "chivalry" and removing war's "glory". [80] "Another anti-gunpowder school denounced the sulfurous powder as a tool of the devil." [81] Lines in Shakespeare introduced humor in which terms had double-meaning, a description of a gun as well as a sexual connotation. Duels with pistols [147] was one of the odd cultural manifestations.

Kelly writes, "The ripples set off by gunpowder's inception in medieval China continued to wash around the globe, affecting diverse societies in diverse ways." [95]

The author make observations about cultural values in China to explain why the defenders were at a technical disadvantage when Portugal invaded in the 1500s. [98-99]

Kelly returns in Chapter 7 to a philosophical mode, beginning with how the ancient Greeks thought of fire [109] and then surveying the experiments of 17th century scientists Hooke, Boyle, Huygens, et. al. [111-118] He also notes several peaceful uses for the explosive powder, including mining and the building of canals. [123]. The next chapter, entitled "No One Reasons," explores religious and moral implications.

While the American Civil War is covered in chapter 12, a point about the American Revolution (Chapter 10) is of greatest interest. The author goes beyond citing the role of gunpowder in helping the revolution to succeed. He indicates, rather, as if to imply a materialist conception of history, that the existence and nature of the instrument itself dictates human society's use of it. Therefore, Kelly writes, "gunpowder could fuel violent action." [167]

Perhaps the reader is familiar with Dwight Eisenhower's phrase, "the military-industrial complex." In the last half of the book, Jack Kelly discusses the role of modern industry in the arming of the state.

Introduced in Chapter 10, the Du Pont corporate dynasty began when the company's mills produced tons of gunpowder each day for the Mexican-American War (1846). [179] The story of the Du Pont family continues in Chapter 13. [217] Lammot Du Pont (1831-1884) studied chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and then became the supervisor of a gunpowder refinery. He experimented with ways to use cheaper sodium nitrate for industrial applications, instead of the more expensive potassium nitrate which remained necessary for use in weapons [218] Later, searching for a slower-burning gunpowder that would maximize the range of the largest cannons, he experimented with grain size and the proportions of the ingredients. He developed a brown powder with larger hexagonal grains. [223-224] The new formula was put to use in a 100-ton gun that burned 800 pounds of powder during each blast. [224]

Another colorful character was Samuel Colt -- "... abrasive, self-made, persistent, eminently practical in his thinking, as imaginative as he was mercenary, an opportunist, a liar, a genius." [182] Colt was the developer of "the revolver concept." [184] As a "a master of ballyhoo" [184], he filed several patent applications and raised capital "from well-heeled relatives." [184] In 1847, Colt began to manufacture revolvers in Hartford, Connecticut. [185] Colt adopted and extended the modern factory system of manufacturing. [186]

Gunpowder met its "first serious rival" [225] when Ascanio Sobrero developed nitroglycerin in the mid-1900s. Later, Alfred Nobel experimented with methods to prevent the dangerous spillage of liquid nitroglycerine by combining the nitro with absorbent solids. Nobel found that a diatomaceous earth (silica) called kieselguhr worked better than sawdust, etc. [228] He packed the mixture of nitroglycerin and kieselguhr into paper tubes and gave it the name "dynamite.", which he patented in 1867. [228] Since the use of dynamite in blasting was perceived by the gunpowder industry as a rival product [228], Lammot du Pont declared, "We are going into the high explosives business," and established a dynamite factory. Du Pont was killed in 1884 when one of his vats exploded. [229]

In recent years, a popular genre of nonfiction books has been that of works which survey world history with attention to the impact of a single substance or product, such as Salt : A World History by Mark Kurlansky, and Philip Ball's books, Life's Matrix : A Biography of Water and Bright Earth : Art and the Invention of Color . In Gunpowder , Jack Kelly has made one of the greatest contributions to this genre, offering us valuable insights about the interconnections of primitive and modern science, international politics, ethical values, and popular culture.

Book review by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

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Gunpowder : Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World
by Jack Kelly
ISBN 0-465-03718-6 / ISBN 0465037186

Publisher's Book Description from the Inside Flap

The surprising history of one of humanity's most critical inventions, one which Francis Bacon declared "changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world."

When Chinese alchemists fashioned the first man-made explosion sometime during the tenth century, no one could have foreseen its revolutionary potential. Invented to frighten evil spirits rather than fuel guns or bombs, the simple mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal that came to be known as gunpowder went on to make the modern world possible. As word of its explosive properties spread from Asia to Europe, it paved the way for Western exploration, hastened the end of feudalism and the rise of the nation-state, and greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution.

With dramatic immediacy, Jack Kelly evokes the distant time in which the "devil's distillate" conquered the world. From the battlefields of medieval Europe to the American frontier, he brings to rousing life the characters that played a role in gunpowder's epic story, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Edward III, Vasco da Gama, Guy Fawkes, Alfred Nobel, Samuel Colt, and E.I. DuPont. Gunpowder explores a a rich terrain of cultures and technological innovations with authoritative research and swashbuckling style, and is a must-read for history fans and military buffs alike.

Please click here for current price and shipping information ...
This is an Amazon.com link for
Gunpowder : Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World
by Jack Kelly
ISBN 0-465-03718-6 / ISBN 0465037186