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Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History First Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521791588
ISBN-10: 0521791588
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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

"...an 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: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,107,993 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
‘Throwing Fire’ is a somewhat curious and unusual book by a serious author. In 200 pages it covers such seemingly diverse subjects as throwing spears and the hazards of living in space. But Professor Crosby shows how they are linked.
Crosby takes as his starting point the fact that human beings are by far the best throwers in the animal kingdom. This fact had profound implications for our species for it meant we could kill at a distance.
After an introduction dealing with the implications of the fact that we walk on two feet thus freeing up our hands the book considers four “accelerations”.
The first takes us from the atlatl and bow and arrow through cooking and firestick farming to the trebuchet and Greek fire.
The second deals with gunpowder, cannon and firearms.
The third covers the V-2 and the atomic bomb.
The fourth covers ourselves “throwing” ourselves into outer space.
I had previously read Crosby’s ‘The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600’, a work I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in the question of “Why the West?” or indeed to anyone interested in history in general. While ‘Measure’ reads like the work of a professor ‘Throwing’ reads like the script of a TV documentary. The style is much more informal, almost chatty.
The casual style of writing is matched by a casual style in editing e.g. on page 140 references to 1918 should clearly read 1914 and on page 161 the author mixes up miles and kilometres not once but twice.
I found ‘Throwing Fire’ an interesting and enjoyable read but not a particularly profound one.
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Format: Hardcover
If you're expecting a straight military history of distance-weapons systems, this isn't it. But if you're into the anthropology and sociology of human control of the environment, this is a fascinating study of one of the key elements in what makes homo sapiens the success he is. The ability to throw a rock -- to effect change in the world at a distance, essentially -- is dependent on bipedalism, so that's where Crosby, an expert in economic and environmental history, starts his story. But the act of throwing something is a much more complex mental and biological operation than you would ever expect. Crosby calls this the "first acceleration." The second key human discovery -- the second acceleration -- is the ability to create fire, which is so basic to our very natures, it may now have developed a genetic component. And that, of course, leads directly to gunpowder and its combustible successors. The third acceleration is much more recent: The ability to launch a controlled rocket, either as a bomb or as a vehicle into space. The author approaches each of these stages in our cultural evolution with wit and sagacity and plenty of references. (My reading list after digesting this book has grown somewhat.) And it's worth noting that the same human ability may make it possible for us either to destroy the world or to escape from it. This remarkable volume is slightly less than 200 pages but you'll be thinking about the arguments it elucidates for some time.
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