Books by Ponting, Clive

Ponting, Clive. Gunpowder. London: Pimlico, 2005. ISBN 1-8441-3543-8.
When I was a kid, we learnt in history class that gunpowder had been discovered in the thirteenth century by the English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, who is considered one of the founders of Western science. The Chinese were also said to have known of gunpowder, but used it only for fireworks, as opposed to the applications in the fields of murder and mayhem the more clever Europeans quickly devised. In The Happy Turning (July 2003), H. G. Wells remarked that “truth has a way of heaving up through the cracks of history”, and so it has been with the origin of gunpowder, as recounted here.

It is one of those splendid ironies that gunpowder, which, along with its more recent successors, has contributed to the slaughter of more human beings than any other invention with the exception of government, was discovered in the 9th century A.D. by Taoist alchemists in China who were searching for an elixir of immortality (and, in fact, gunpowder continued to be used as a medicine in China for centuries thereafter). But almost as soon as the explosive potential of gunpowder was discovered, the Chinese began to apply it to weapons and, over the next couple of centuries had invented essentially every kind of firearm and explosive weapon which exists today.

Gunpowder is not a high explosive; it does not detonate in a supersonic shock wave as do substances such as nitroglycerine and TNT, but rather deflagrates, or burns rapidly, as the heat of combustion causes the release of the oxygen in the nitrate compound in the mix. If confined, of course, the rapid release of gases and heat can cause a container to explode, but the rapid combustion of gunpowder also makes it suitable as a propellant in guns and rockets. The early Chinese formulations used a relatively small amount of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), and were used in incendiary weapons such as fire arrows, fire lances (a kind of flamethrower), and incendiary bombs launched by catapults and trebuchets. Eventually the Chinese developed high-nitrate mixes which could be used in explosive bombs, rockets, guns, and cannon (which were perfected in China long before the West, where the technology of casting iron did not appear until two thousand years after it was known in China).

From China, gunpowder technology spread to the Islamic world, where bombardment by a giant cannon contributed to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Knowledge of gunpowder almost certainly reached Europe via contact with the Islamic invaders of Spain. The first known European document giving its formula, whose disarmingly candid Latin title Liber Ignium ad Comburendos Hostes translates to “Book of Fires for the Burning of Enemies”, dates from about 1300 and contains a number of untranslated Arabic words.

Gunpowder weapons soon became a fixture of European warfare, but crude gun fabrication and weak powder formulations initially limited their use mostly to huge siege cannons which launched large stone projectiles against fortifications at low velocity. But as weapon designs and the strength of powder improved, the balance in siege warfare shifted from the defender to the attacker, and the consolidation of power in Europe began to accelerate.

The author argues persuasively that gunpowder played an essential part in the emergence of the modern European state, because the infrastructure needed to produce saltpetre, manufacture gunpowder weapons in quantity, equip, train, and pay ever-larger standing armies required a centralised administration with intrusive taxation and regulation which did not exist before. Once these institutions were in place, they conferred such a strategic advantage that the ruler was able to consolidate and expand the area of control at the expense of previously autonomous regions, until coming up against another such “gunpowder state”.

Certainly it was gunpowder weapons which enabled Europeans to conquer colonies around the globe and eventually impose their will on China, where centuries of political stability had caused weapons technology to stagnate by comparison with that of conflict-ridden Europe.

It was not until the nineteenth century that other explosives and propellants discovered by European chemists brought the millennium-long era of gunpowder a close. Gunpowder shaped human history as have few other inventions. This excellent book recounts that story from gunpowder's accidental invention as an elixir to its replacement by even more destructive substances, and provides a perspective on a thousand years of world history in terms of the weapons with which so much of it was created.

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