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Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, And Pyrotechnics: The History Of The Explosive That Changed The World Hardcover – April 13, 2004

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 13, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465037186
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465037186
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,028,685 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A novelist and popular history writer, Kelly traces the history of gunpowder from 10th-century China to the late 19th century, when it was supplanted by Alfred Nobel’s nitroglycerin. Kelly takes advantage of gunpowder’s role in the histories of armaments and war to titillate with gruesome but fascinating accounts of the atrocities the destructive power of gunpowder visited on Europe: in the 30 Years War, the German states lost an estimated eight million people—one-third of their population. As opposed to the shocking immediacy with which the atomic bomb entered collective consciousness, gunpowder and its accompanying technology developed as effective instruments of war over hundreds of years. But of the two, Kelly says, gunpowder has had a greater impact on the course of civilization. For example, he argues plausibly that, by the 16th century, the cost of gunpowder needed by an effective fighting force "favored strong centralized states" with the authority and ability to tax and in turn created "the foundations of modern nations." This miscellany jumps between the technical developments that continually improved gunpowder (readers will know more than they ever felt necessary about the creation of saltpeter), and gunpowder’s cultural impact. Kelly’s erudition ranges from the development of the science of ballistics to the infamous 1605 Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot to blow up the English parliament. Kelly (Line of Sight, etc.) writes well and has a terrific eye for the instructive detail or odd historical fact that brings the narrative to life. It is an entertaining and readable effort. 36 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

This story-filled chronicle of gunpowder extends from its invention in China about a millennium ago to its last use in battle during the American Civil War. Kelly covers the main points about the explosive--what it's made of, how it's made, who made it, and the evolution of gunpowder-powered weapons. They spelled the end of the walled city and the mounted knight, which Kelly illustrates through the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the 1346 Battle of Crecy. From such exemplary applications of gunpowder's noisy, smoking appearance on the battlefield, Kelly repairs to the laboratory to relate what early chemists such as Robert Boyle or Antoine Lavoisier discovered about how gunpowder exploded and what others figured out about the ballistics of shot. With similarly lively portraits of figures who chaperoned gunpowder to its technical peak in the 1800s, the Du Ponts on the manufacturing side, or the inventors of revolvers and rifled arms on the weaponry side, Kelly accesses history through technology. A skillfully done treatment with solid popular potential. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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See all 20 customer reviews
I found the book very enlightening, as well as a fun read.
B. Barrett
He does not bother with footnotes, but he does provide a good summary of his sources (which are excellent) at the end.
John D. Cofield
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject, or anyone who reads general non-fiction.
David W. Nicholas

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Paul Eckler on January 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, by Jack Kelly, Basic Books, NY, 2004. Kelly had done a very nice job with this crisp, well written history of gunpowder. He covers the subject nicely, in survey fashion, but with some detailed stories. There's history, technology, and science-all in fine factual detail but for the general audience. The chemistry, mathematics, metallurgy, and physics are there, but not in rigorous detail. Just enough to whet the appetite for further study. References are included for each chapter, though footnotes are lacking.

A detailed study of the history of gunpowder and related technologies could have gone on for thousands of pages. The author has selected certain stories for focus. He begins in China, and tells especially the European story, and the use of firearms in battle, on land and at sea. He includes some stories from America including the Revolutionary War, the story of Samuel Colt, and the Dupont story of gunpowder. He ends with development of the A-bomb, but really coverage ends at the beginning of the Twentieth Century with smokeless powder. There is no mention of lead mining or the famous shot towers. Kelly covers the abundance of saltpeter in the warm climate of China, its general shortage in Europe, and the extensive efforts to collect and extract it in Britain and France. But there is no mention of the Nobel Prize winning Borne-Haber process, invented in World War I in Germany, that resolved the nitrate shortage by making synthetic nitric acid from air and fossil fuels (natural gas, naphtha, coal), as is still practiced today.

The book is highly readable and will be appreciated by those interested in history, science, and technology. Index.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By B. Barrett on May 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Kelly starts with the invention of gun powder in China and goes through 1900. I found the book very enlightening, as well as a fun read. Kelly describes how powder was originally invented by Chinese alchemists, use by the Chinese to fight off the Mongols, adaptation by European powers, the parallel development of guns and cannons, and societal effects like ending the age of castles and spurring the development of chemistry. The chapter on the Duponts was interesting. Highly recommended.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Theodore A. Rushton on September 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Gunpowder was a great and awe inspiring fun product when it was invented in China about a thousand years ago, but then the stuff grew up to blast warfare into the modern world before retiring to once again be a great fun and awe.

Kelly is a good writer who clearly understands history, and offers a clear concise story about the impact of gunpowder. It helped propel western society to world dominance, even though it was invented and widely used outside Europe; yet, Europeans made it truly destructive and an element of domination. Kelly quotes a sixteenth-century diplomat who summed up the conquering mind-set, "Religion supplies the pretext and gold the motive."

In that vein, he also sums as the character of Samuel Colt "as typically American: abrasive, self-made, persistent, eminently practical in his thinking, as imaginative as he was mercenary, an opportunist, a liar, a genius." If these qualities, plus the lust for gold, turned Europeans into world conquerors using gunpowder, square-rigged ships and a variety of other innovations, then we need hardly be surprised if similar horrors are used against us.

In other words, gunpowder was the means but not the motive for changing the world. Kelly also suggests "an irrational antagonism toward non-Christians, Moslems in particular." In other words, gunpowder was perfected by secular scientists and used by greedy opportunists under the cover of religious fundamentalism to dominate the world.

Kelly raises these questions; but, quite rightly, leaves them unanswered. This is a book about gunpowder, not national psyches or ambitions.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"Better living through chemistry" was the motto of the Du Pont Corporation. Actually, it would have been more accurate to have said "Better killing through chemistry." Du Pont was at the apex in the history of gunpowder, getting out of the outdated business only in 1971, but by then gunpowder had over ten centuries of effects on history. In _Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World_ (Basic Books), Jack Kelly has tied the explosive chemical not only to changes in war and international history, but has explained its effect on the inchoate sciences of chemistry and physics. Kelly more often writes as a novelist, but here shows an impressive range of facts laid out with a novelist's eye to entertainment.
It is well known that the Chinese invented gunpowder (a combination of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter), but it is not true that the Chinese were happy to use gunpowder for fireworks and never used it in war. They had incendiaries and primitive guns. The gun was originally viewed as the weapon of cowards. That anyone could use a gun, and that the results of such use were distant and consisted generally of random havoc rather than, say, a well-placed slice from a sword, took some of the valor out of fighting. By the sixteenth century, cannons had developed into forms that would still be used in the American Civil War. There was little scientific input into making either gunpowder or guns; it was, rather, the work of craftsmen who were the earliest engineers. The craftsmen had to put up with an inherently dangerous arena. Not only were accidental explosions common, but barrels inevitably exploded.
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