Cover image for Gunpowder : alchemy, bombards, and pyrotechnics : the history of the explosive that changed the world
Gunpowder : alchemy, bombards, and pyrotechnics : the history of the explosive that changed the world
Kelly, Jack, 1949-
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Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, [2004]

Physical Description:
x, 261 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Prologue: the devil's distillate -- Fire drug -- Thundring noyse -- The most pernicious arts -- The devills birds -- Villainous saltpetre -- Conquest's crimson wing -- Nitro-aerial spirit -- No one reasons -- What victory costs -- History out of control -- The meeting of heaven and earth -- Appalling grandeur -- The old article -- Epilogue: something new.
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TP272 .K45 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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When Chinese alchemists fashioned the first manmade explosion sometime during the tenth century, no one could have foreseen its full revolutionary potential. Invented to frighten evil spirits rather than fuel guns or bombs-neither of which had been thought of yet-their simple mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal went on to make the modern world possible. As word of its explosive properties spread from Asia to Europe, from pyrotechnics to battleships, 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, novelist and journalist Jack Kelly conveys both the distant time in which the "devil's distillate" rose to conquer the world, and brings to rousing life the eclectic cast of characters who played a role in its epic story, including Michelangelo, Edward III, Vasco da Gama, Cortez, Guy Fawkes, Alfred Nobel, and E.I. DuPont. A must-read for history fans and military buffs alike, Gunpowder brings together a rich terrain of cultures and technological innovations with authoritative research and swashbuckling style.

Author Notes

Jack Kelly is both an accomplished novelist and an experienced author of popular history. He writes regularly for American Heritage, and has also written features about the DuPont family's involvement in the gunpowder industry and the history of fireworks in America. He lives in Milan, New York.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

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 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. Agent, Loretta Barrett. (May 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

Writer and novelist Kelly (Mobtown) provides an entertaining and informative historical survey of the "fire drug." Around 1000 C.E., Chinese alchemists first mixed saltpeter, sulfur, and a variety of carbons to make a fiery substance that became known as gunpowder. Although the Chinese found military applications for this explosive mix, it was the Europeans who embraced gunpowder as a deadly force to be harnessed as a decisive weapon on land and sea. By the middle of the 14th century, its explosive power had found a home in the barrels of cannons and other destructive instruments. The reader quickly learns that the manufacturing and possession of gunpowder often influenced the course of history. Kelly's lucid writing style is further accentuated by the skillful use of illustrations, and his annotated list of sources is an excellent guide for further research on the evolving importance of gunpowder. Libraries that own G.I. Brown's The Big Bang: A History of Explosives may not need to purchase Kelly's comparable study, but no public library collection will be harmed by the addition of this lively study of the "devil's distillate."-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This book immediately engages popular and undergraduate audiences, holding reader interest by showing the technical development of gunpowder as a series of human stories. One can mentally "hear" the explosions as Kelly traces this aspect of the history of technology from the Sung Dynasty through the Hundred Years' War, the Guy Fawkes conspiracy, and the building of the Du Pont chemical monopoly. The work would thus serve well as supplemental reading for world history and Western civilization courses. Kelly is a novelist who has contributed articles on similar topics to American Heritage. He has based this book on secondary sources, but the scholars he has drawn on are the leading experts, ranging chronologically from Arnold Pacey and Joseph Needham to Bert S. Hall and Antonia Fraser. Indeed, the essay on sources is substantive; the references provided compensate for the author's rather weak scientific explanations. The illustrations are adequate in their visual appeal, although this reader would have appreciated more information about their sources and a search of rare book rooms beyond the Hagley Museum and Library of Wilmington, Delaware. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers; lower- and upper-division undergraduates. A. K. Ackerberg-Hastings University of Maryland University College