An explosive new look at history

The development of gunpowder raised some nations, obliterated others

I have long been puzzled by accounts of cannons that unaccountably exploded, killing gun crews in wartime and civilians on the Fourth of July. Why should an article made of solid iron that has successfully fired 1,000 rounds of gunpowder explode upon being loaded one more time?

In "Gunpowder: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World," Jack Kelly explains that this black powder burns at 2,138 degrees C, hundreds of degrees above the melting point of iron. Since every firing eroded the interior of the barrel, the eventual explosion of a long-used cannon was not an accident; it was an inevitability.

This kind of insight is both the strength and weakness of "Gunpowder," and, indeed, of all books with titles that include the phrase "...That Changed the World." More than 100 such books are currently in print, on topics that range from cod to the printing press (see list below). Their appeal lies in the chance to look at the whole world.

Why, for example, was gunpowder invented in China? European and Chinese alchemists used similar methods and materials. Why didn't Europeans come up with gunpowder?

Eastern and Western alchemists, Kelly tells us, were looking for different things. "In the West, alchemy focused on ways of transforming basic substances into gold. In contrast, the principal aim of Chinese practitioners was to create an elixir of immortality. Their interest was drawn by materials with paradoxical properties - gold, the element that never tarnished; mercury, the liquid metal; sulfur, the stone that burned."

It was while investigating sulfur that 10th-century Chinese alchemists came up with gunpowder, the explosive result of mixing sulfur with saltpeter and charcoal. The process of perfecting the new "fire drug" was neither smooth nor brief, but in Kelly's account it was often amusing. Chinese gunpowdermakers added charred grasshoppers to the charcoal, to give the gunpowder liveliness, while European manufacturers preferred saltpeter made from the urine of individuals "whiche drink either wyne or strong bear." (The idea is not as absurd as it sounds. Saltpeter is produced by bacteria that feed on decaying organic matter; the ammonium-rich liquid produced by heavy drinkers enhances bacterial activity.)

Anyone who dedicates years to researching and writing about a topic will be prone to exaggerate the importance of his subject, but when the topic is gunpowder, no exaggeration is needed. Gunpowder really did rearrange the world.

Early modern Europeans invented ships that could sail close to the wind and carry many months supply of food and water. So did the Chinese. But when Europeans mounted heavy cannons on their ships, they created an unbeatable weapon.

Cannon-bearing ships defeated the Ottoman fleet of oared galleys at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, checking the Muslim effort to conquer the Mediterranean. In the main, however, the new ship-mounted cannons were used for commercial and imperial expansion, not defense.

Indeed, after the final Muslim attempt to conquer Europe failed with the defeat of the Ottoman Army at Vienna in 1683, the only conquerors Europeans had to fear were other Europeans. Neither the Chinese, nor the Mughal, nor the Ottoman empires could stand against Europe's gunpowder weapons.

This raises questions that continue to be important in today's world. During the centuries when gunpowder weaponry was being developed in Europe, the Chinese, Mughal, and Ottoman empires were larger, wealthier, and more powerful than any European state, and all three had a proclivity for invading and conquering peaceful neighbors. That these great empires not only failed to create new gunpowder technology, but failed even to adopt the techniques developed by the European empires demands explanation.

Kelly attributes the lack of interest in guns on the part of 17th-century Chinese officials to "the whisper of taste, of fashion, of irrational whim." Gunpower was dirty, noisy stuff. "The fact that guns were useful did not matter, usefulness lacked the overriding value that it held for occidentals."

As an explanation of a major historical trend, this is wholly inadequate. But the pleasure of "Gunpowder" is the fun of learning, for example, that at the height of the War between the States, the cash-strapped Confederacy built a gunpowder works at Augusta not in an efficient, utilitarian style, but as a formal, masonry replica of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. History, after all, is made by human beings. No wonder it's quirky, unpredictable, and often absurd.

Diana Muir is the author of 'Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England' (University Press of New England).

Just a few of the books 'that changed the world'

A very partial list of recent books about subjects that changed the world

The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production by James Womack

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

100 Photographs That Changed the World by the Editors of Life Magazine

Books That Changed the World by Robert Downs

The Miraculous Fever-Tree: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure That Changed the World by Fiammetta Rocco

The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World by Amir Aczel

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield

Five Equations That Changed the World by Michael Guillen

Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece That Changed the World by Russell Martin

El Niño: The Weather Phenomenon That Changed the World by Ross Couper-Johnston

Nasdaq: A History of the Market That Changed the World by Mark Ingebretsen

Model T Ford: The Car That Changed the World by Bruce McCalley

50 Battles That Changed the World by William Weir

Buildings That Changed the World by Klaus Reichold

Bridges That Changed the World by Bernhard Graf

The Cable: The Wire That Changed the World by Gillian Cookson

The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World by Bernard Asbell

Franchising: The Business Strategy That Changed the World by Carrie Shook

Mayflower: The Voyage That Changed the World by Anthea Ballam

The Weekend That Changed the World: The Mystery of Jerusalem's Empty Tomb by Peter Walker

Glass: The Story of the Substance That Changed the World by William Ellis

The Invention That Changed the World: The Story of Radar by Robert Buderi

The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World by Jim Dawson

The Monitor: The Iron Warship That Changed the World by Gare Thompson

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