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Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History [Hardcover]

by Alfred W. Crosby
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 8, 2002 0521791588 978-0521791588 First
In Throwing Fire, historian Alfred W. Crosby looks at hard, accurate throwing and the manipulation of fire as unique human capabilities. Humans began throwing rocks in prehistory and then progressed to javelins, atlatls, bows and arrows. We learned to make fire by friction and used it to cook, drive game, burn out rivals, and alter landscapes to our liking. Our exploitation of these two capabilities figured in the extinction of many species, and may have played a role in the demise of Neanderthals. In historic times we invented catapults, trebuchets, and such flammable liquids as Greek Fire, a napalm-like substance that stuck to whatever it hit and could not be extinguished with water. About 1,000 years ago we invented gunpowder, which led to guns and rockets, enabling us to literally throw fire. Gunpowder weaponry accelerated the rise of empires and the advance of European imperialism. In the 20th century, gunpowder weaponry enabled us to achieve unprecedented mayhem--the most destructive wars of all time. This trend peaked at the end of World War II with the V-2 and atomic bomb, at which point species suicide became possible. Faced with possible extinction should we experience World War III, we have turned our projectile talents to space travel which may make it possible for our species to migrate to other bodies of our solar system and even other star systems. Alfred W. Crosby is the author of the widely popular and ground-breaking books The Measure of Reality (Cambridge, 1996), America's Forgotten Pandemic (Cambridge, 1990) and Ecological Imperialism (Cambridge, 1986). He taught at the University of Texas, Austin for over 20 years. His books have received the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize, the Medical Writers Association Prize and been named by the Los Angeles Times as among the best books of the year.

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Editorial Reviews


"Crosby's new book is another home run, worthy of its predecessors..." The International History Review

"Alfred Crosby is deservedly famous as an environmental historian and entertaining writer. In this book he does it again, telling us all about projectiles from the time of our ape origins up to the Space Age. Having read this book, you will understand history, and you will also have the most interesting stories to relate at cocktail parties." Jared M. Diamond

"Alfred Crosby has applied his inimitable wit to two human traits, our capacities for throwing and burning, to track the history of the species. An enjoyable and provocative essay." Stephen Pyne, Arizona State University

"This is a delightful little book...[readers] who are interested in man's interaction with technology will find Crosby's arguments attractive." Air Power History

"Even if experts are likely to find little that is new, they may well benefit by looking at familiar material from the fresh angles that Crosby suggests." Barton C. Hacker Technology and Culture

"Well-written and fascinating throughout, the book is particularly instructive in linking developments in prehistory with those in more recent times." Journal of World History, Jeremy Black, University of Exeter

"Entertaining..." Wisconsin State Journal

" impressive and thought provoking work..." -J. Furman Daniel, III, StrategyWorld

Book Description

In Throwing Fire, historian Alfred W. Crosby looks at hard, accurate throwing and the manipulation of fire as unique human capabilities, allowing us to create simple weapons, atomic bombs, and to venture into space. He examines the effects of throwing fire on life on our planet, including species extinctions, the rise of empires and the advance of European Imperialism, and the peril of destructive wars. Throwing fire, which might make Earth uninhabitable for humans, may make it possible for our species to migrate to other bodies of our solar system and even other star systems.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 218 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; First edition (April 8, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521791588
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521791588
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,987,612 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Short Book on a Very Long Subject May 2, 2004
Crosby's "Throwing Fire" is well written and engaging, and it is a useful overview of the development and use of projectiles from the appearance of hominids in Africa over two million years ago through the launch of Pioneer 10, the first space probe to leave the Solar System. Still, two million years is an awful lot of ground to cover in 200 pages of well-spaced text, and "Throwing Fire" is more of a long essay than a ground-breaking synthesis like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel."
For my money, the first few chapters are the most interesting parts of the book. Crosby does a good job of summarizing what scientists know about the ability of Australopithicenes and other ancient hominids to throw rocks and other projectiles, the first known appearance of javelins an astonishing 400,000 years ago, the use of fire to "terraform" the planet, and the possible role of the atlatl (spear thrower) in the great extinction of megafauna that took place in the Upper Paleolithic. The chapters that deal with relatively recent historical developments--gunpowder, crossbows, trebuchets, artillery, missiles, and the like--cover a lot of familiar ground with a broad brush and do not offer as many intriguing observations as the first parts of the book.
If this subject interests you and you'd like to read a more elaborate history of weapons development (albiet without Crosby's excellent examination of prehistory), try Robert O'Connell's highly readable "Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present." If you are intrigued by Crosby's brief discussion of the counterweight trebuchet (an impressive if little known medieval siege weapon), have a look at Fisher & Fisher, "Mysteries of Lost Empires," which includes a chapter about a project to reconstruct a trebuchet (everyone needs a hobby, I guess, and this one can be used to knock down castle walls).
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting History and Commentary August 7, 2002
This book has some similiarities with Jared Diamond's wonderful "Gun's, Germs and Steel", but it is much more focused. Crosby discusses the historical use of projectile weapons by humans (and hominids), and how in a lot of ways, this helps to define humanity. No other animal has shown the ability to throw hard, far, and with accuracy, and this ability might have been crucial to the adoption of a terrestial lifestyle by our ancient ancestors. Throwing stones at predators might just have been key to allowing Australopithecenes to survive. The use of fire is also a key characteristic of humans, and with it humanity has helped shaped the environment to suit our purposes. Moving on from simple stones; through javelins; atlatls; slings; bows; siege engines; and, finally, chemically propelled projectiles (which mix fire and throwing), including satellites that have left our solar system, Crosby shows how developments in projectile technology have helped shaped history as we know it. This book is an interesting read, and is very well footnoted. Those interested in such areas as general anthropology, historical science and military science might also find book quite enjoyable.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Investigative History March 16, 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
There's an entire genre of books about projectile weapons: trebuchets, catapults, etc. This is not one of them. This is an astonishing examination about how mankind evolved in a rather unlikely way, transformed by the odd shape of the foot and the lack of a clawed hand to emerge as a precision throwing machine. Thoroughly researched and well-written, "Throwing Fire" is more than a study of projectile technology: it is a deft history of mankind's triumphant journey towards mastery of its environment... but also reveals how mastery of projectiles and incendiary technologies not only resulted in mass extinctions of other species and, in a chilling way, presages our own likely self-extinction. Not at all what I expected... a brilliant and engaging social history of how one unlikely species used precision and elegance to surpass and dominate ferocious megafauna. Masterful work by Dr. Crosby.
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