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Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World

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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 i 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, Cortés, 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.


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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 i 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, Cortés, 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.

30 review for Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World

  1. 5 out of 5

    Grace

    Where to start with this book? Honestly, I love chemistry, pop sci, AND history. I love a well written story, took. You'd think I'd have loved this book... but I just couldn't. Not because it wasn't any of these things, but because of the lack of citations. It really got on my nerves when I wanted to learn more... but couldn't even follow the rabbit hole. As a history of chemistry, history of one of the world's most prominent tool in war, this was a fabulous book. Read it with a light heart, ope Where to start with this book? Honestly, I love chemistry, pop sci, AND history. I love a well written story, took. You'd think I'd have loved this book... but I just couldn't. Not because it wasn't any of these things, but because of the lack of citations. It really got on my nerves when I wanted to learn more... but couldn't even follow the rabbit hole. As a history of chemistry, history of one of the world's most prominent tool in war, this was a fabulous book. Read it with a light heart, open mind, and curiosity towards the past. It's a great pop sci book that makes the entirety of the history of gunpowder from it's meek beginnings as a tainted soil to a powerful weapon enjoyable to read. It's laced with important figures, interesting small characters that you rarely see in even a grad-level class, and a whole new dimension to our shared past related to the greed for this powdered gold. He doesn't just focus on China nor the west, but also spends a deal of time discussing the desires of African tribes, the ways the Native American's used them, and how the little guys used gunpowder for revolution fuel. As a research book... it leaves a lot to be desired. Despite talking about many aspects of the world of gunpowder, Kelly failed to cite thoroughly. There were, on average 3.5 sources per chapter given in the back of the book as an annotated resource. However, in the chapter, there were quotes -- in actual quotation marks -- what were not cited at all. That is the part that vexed me, and also brought down the quality of the book from a 4.5 star to a 3 star.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Abram

    I loved this book and only gave it 3 stars because I dont think its a great book for everyone. The book gives a detailed history of the invention and progress of gunpowder manufacturing. It is a very easy read with some terminology and jargon that you may have to look up, but overall I believe it to be very approachable for the everyday reader. Kelly does a good job of pointing out how the use of gunpowder affected history and for me brought to light how important a few inventors and chemists we I loved this book and only gave it 3 stars because I dont think its a great book for everyone. The book gives a detailed history of the invention and progress of gunpowder manufacturing. It is a very easy read with some terminology and jargon that you may have to look up, but overall I believe it to be very approachable for the everyday reader. Kelly does a good job of pointing out how the use of gunpowder affected history and for me brought to light how important a few inventors and chemists were to the formation of the weaponry of the world which in turn shaped world as we know it today. Without the discovery of GP many of the wars that have been fought may have had differing results, super powers may not have evolved and much of the conquest of native cultures would not have happened. There is no question of the accelerating effect it had on the conquest for power and the ability for nations to do so.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ellieboi

    Interesting and thoughtful. When I started this book I was enamored by explosives and its history. Later I have realized how horrible it can be. This was absolutely interesting read, Kelly is a goos story teller and he does not shy away from the terrible destruction and technological leaps gunpowder brought.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    To me this is a five-star book. All about one of the most important inventions of all time, and proves beyond doubt the importance of chemistry. The major (75%) ingredient is potassium nitrate, which was often difficult and expensive to obtain. Its unique property was to give off oxygen when heated, a property I have personally demonstrated in a chemistry lab. Also includes a significant amount of information on gun development from the earliest hand cannon to post-civil war, and the effects o To me this is a five-star book. All about one of the most important inventions of all time, and proves beyond doubt the importance of chemistry. The major (75%) ingredient is potassium nitrate, which was often difficult and expensive to obtain. Its unique property was to give off oxygen when heated, a property I have personally demonstrated in a chemistry lab. Also includes a significant amount of information on gun development from the earliest hand cannon to post-civil war, and the effects on war, commerce,empires, and mining. Includes the story of Alfred Nobel and dynamite, an early but still-used high explosive, much more powerful than gunpowder or its sodium nitrate cousin, blasting powder. Also includes the story of the DuPonts, who immigrated from France and built a monopoly on gunpowder and later smokeless powder manufacturing in America. Stories of several major accidental explosions with significant loss of life are also included. This book was a very well-chosen birthday gift from Brenda and Kevin this year.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mike Braun

    A bit strange, but very exciting book. The history of gunpowder from its introduction in China to its replacement with more terrible means of murder. Everything is written in a very lively figurative language. Most of the historical plots are taken from the history of Western Europe and North America. Curious moments, how dependence on gunpowder influenced the economies of states and the history of peoples, the methods of war and the development of related sciences. For example, I was always inte A bit strange, but very exciting book. The history of gunpowder from its introduction in China to its replacement with more terrible means of murder. Everything is written in a very lively figurative language. Most of the historical plots are taken from the history of Western Europe and North America. Curious moments, how dependence on gunpowder influenced the economies of states and the history of peoples, the methods of war and the development of related sciences. For example, I was always interested in why the French Revolution began with the capture of the Bastille - there were few other objects, perhaps, if the weapon was on hand? It turns out that there was a weapon, but there was no gunpowder for it. The day before, they managed to take them out of the Arsenal - to the Bastille, so after the plundering of a few empty arsenals and the city hall, the fortress-prison became the number one target, and certainly not because of its prisoners ...

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mike Parkes

    Much like gunpowder requires the proper mix of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, this book mixes chemistry, technology, and history in just the right proportions to create a near-perfect microhistory. Enough detail to help you understand the technological improvements in the powder and the guns over the centuries and the impact of these changes, without either getting bogged down in the weeds or over-simplifying. Covers up to the introduction of the high explosives that replaced gunpowder in both Much like gunpowder requires the proper mix of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, this book mixes chemistry, technology, and history in just the right proportions to create a near-perfect microhistory. Enough detail to help you understand the technological improvements in the powder and the guns over the centuries and the impact of these changes, without either getting bogged down in the weeds or over-simplifying. Covers up to the introduction of the high explosives that replaced gunpowder in both military and civilian uses. I am not much into war or weapons (came to this title via a recent read on artificial nitrate as fertilizer) but couldn’t put this down.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Cade

    This was an very interesting and readable book. The author covers the entire history of gunpowder. While much of the content is naturally taken up by the interplay of the development of gunpowder and artillery/firearms, he also touches on civilian uses. I like that he clearly explains the incremental enhancements in formulation and manufacture over time with clear exposition of the value to end use applications at each stage. After this one, I will definitely look for more books by Jack Kelly.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Gates

    It's a accessible history booking looking into the history of gunpowder. It touches on chemistry in a few places near the beginning and end. Gunpowder is used to look at important historical events such as Portugals going to Asia with cannons for the first time and gives these events context to really appreciate why they happened. It's a good read. It's a accessible history booking looking into the history of gunpowder. It touches on chemistry in a few places near the beginning and end. Gunpowder is used to look at important historical events such as Portugals going to Asia with cannons for the first time and gives these events context to really appreciate why they happened. It's a good read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Zack Fritz

    Nicely done overview of the history of gunpowder. If that seems interesting to you, you'll probably like this book. I really liked the first half, which discussed the discovery of gunpowder from about the third to eighteenth century. I lost steam once it got to the 1800s, but this book is short enough that it was still an enjoyable read. Nicely done overview of the history of gunpowder. If that seems interesting to you, you'll probably like this book. I really liked the first half, which discussed the discovery of gunpowder from about the third to eighteenth century. I lost steam once it got to the 1800s, but this book is short enough that it was still an enjoyable read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Slegers

    Very well written material. The author balances historical facts with fascinating and thought provoking connections. This more than just a history of gunpowder. It helps explain the political landscapes across regions and gunpowder's role in shaping the world as we know it. Very well written material. The author balances historical facts with fascinating and thought provoking connections. This more than just a history of gunpowder. It helps explain the political landscapes across regions and gunpowder's role in shaping the world as we know it.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    started off slow and academic, but about half-way through became much more interesting and readable

  12. 5 out of 5

    Wayne Jones

    An interesting topic but the writing was too dry for me.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ian

    Well written, popular history of the development of gunpowder with good details of China's discovery and use. In other words, not Euro-centric. Well written, popular history of the development of gunpowder with good details of China's discovery and use. In other words, not Euro-centric.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tres Herndon

    I recently read a book about how the Mongols changed the world. The Mongols took the Chinese invention of gunpowder and used it during their conquests. But it was the Europeans that really took the ball and ran with it. Goes to show that it's not who invents something first, it's who maximizes its utility. The book is very accessible, easy to read, but not simple and full of interesting detail. It's an ideal gateway book to inspire research into other areas. It's fascinating that even today gunpo I recently read a book about how the Mongols changed the world. The Mongols took the Chinese invention of gunpowder and used it during their conquests. But it was the Europeans that really took the ball and ran with it. Goes to show that it's not who invents something first, it's who maximizes its utility. The book is very accessible, easy to read, but not simple and full of interesting detail. It's an ideal gateway book to inspire research into other areas. It's fascinating that even today gunpowder isn't fully understood and that it took almost 1000 years for it to be supplanted by synthetic explosives like TNT. It's also fascinating that if you took a Chinese powder expert from 1267 and showed him a modern firecracker he'd understand it perfectly - apart from some details nothing has changed.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    Fun (really!) popular history of gunpowder, which started and ended its career as a propellant for fireworks, and in between fueled wars between men and nations, at land and sea. One interesting point made by Kelly is that gunpowder was an early human technology that was developed and refined by practitioners, who had an imperfect understanding of how it worked, and not theoreticians, who often had NO understanding of how it worked. And in fact gunpowder as a technology was superseded before scie Fun (really!) popular history of gunpowder, which started and ended its career as a propellant for fireworks, and in between fueled wars between men and nations, at land and sea. One interesting point made by Kelly is that gunpowder was an early human technology that was developed and refined by practitioners, who had an imperfect understanding of how it worked, and not theoreticians, who often had NO understanding of how it worked. And in fact gunpowder as a technology was superseded before science fully caught up with it, so that it is still to some extent an unknown quantity. I am reminded of Jimmy Buffett's line "A bombardier, a nighttime magician" in reference to a fireworks artisan setting of a sh

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kellan

    I appreciate the growing level of confidence that if through a freak accident involving a skunkworks time travel project, a dimensional flutter, or odd encounter with Mark Twain in a San Francisco back street I was warped to 13th/14th century Europe I would be able to earn my keep improving the state of the gunpowder industry. Which is the secret hope of everyone reading popular histories of technology -- after all you've got to cover your bases. I can't help but think this will serve me better in I appreciate the growing level of confidence that if through a freak accident involving a skunkworks time travel project, a dimensional flutter, or odd encounter with Mark Twain in a San Francisco back street I was warped to 13th/14th century Europe I would be able to earn my keep improving the state of the gunpowder industry. Which is the secret hope of everyone reading popular histories of technology -- after all you've got to cover your bases. I can't help but think this will serve me better in establishing my medieval power base then Kurlansky's tips on making world class pickles through out history. (though talk about a double threat!)

  17. 4 out of 5

    Abraham Gustavson

    Jack Kelly's Gunpowder is a combination wonderful historical narrative with touches of science dotted throughout. From its' roots in China to the battlefields of the Civil War gunpowder has had a destructive, but yet fascinating impact on mankind. What I liked most about this were the fascinating bits of stories of individuals whose lives were affected by the substance. From a Confederate soldier attempting to dig himself a hole at Gettysburg to child soldiers on running powder to gunners on Eng Jack Kelly's Gunpowder is a combination wonderful historical narrative with touches of science dotted throughout. From its' roots in China to the battlefields of the Civil War gunpowder has had a destructive, but yet fascinating impact on mankind. What I liked most about this were the fascinating bits of stories of individuals whose lives were affected by the substance. From a Confederate soldier attempting to dig himself a hole at Gettysburg to child soldiers on running powder to gunners on English man-of wars, Kelly has a knack of putting the reader on the frontline of this epic. Never doubt the strength in military technology in history. Kelly hits this point home time and time again.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Connor

    Gunpowder is the thousand year story of the development of black powder. The book was interesting, but I got the feeling that everything was being skimmed over. Obviously there is a lot of material to cover, so it is understandable. I would have liked some more diagrams to illustrate some of the points the author was talking about. Overall, it was a good read and I definitely learned a lot about the history of the "devil's distillate". I would recommend brushing up on your American History befor Gunpowder is the thousand year story of the development of black powder. The book was interesting, but I got the feeling that everything was being skimmed over. Obviously there is a lot of material to cover, so it is understandable. I would have liked some more diagrams to illustrate some of the points the author was talking about. Overall, it was a good read and I definitely learned a lot about the history of the "devil's distillate". I would recommend brushing up on your American History before reading this book, particularly the Civil War.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Carlos

    This book was fun though less focused on the science of gunpowder than I expected. Still, Kelly takes the reader through the beginning, apogee and decline of the use of this quite versatile mixture. In that process he analyses both its immediate impact as well as its long lasting effect on both the sciences and on civilization as a whole. Lastly, though sometimes disconnected, Kelly’s prose is for the most part fluid and very easy to read, allowing an interested reader to learn quite a bit of in This book was fun though less focused on the science of gunpowder than I expected. Still, Kelly takes the reader through the beginning, apogee and decline of the use of this quite versatile mixture. In that process he analyses both its immediate impact as well as its long lasting effect on both the sciences and on civilization as a whole. Lastly, though sometimes disconnected, Kelly’s prose is for the most part fluid and very easy to read, allowing an interested reader to learn quite a bit of information without feeling like he/she is being lectured.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sara-Anne

    This was a really fun, informational read. Full of anecdotes and details about the people and events that shaped the way gunpowder was used, while giving the reader an understanding of how gunpowder changed the world. My personal favorite was the story about how, when rifling was first invented, they held an experiment to test whether the spinning of the bullets was attracting or repelling demons, thereby influencing the accuracy. This book gave me an appreciation for both the science and the ma This was a really fun, informational read. Full of anecdotes and details about the people and events that shaped the way gunpowder was used, while giving the reader an understanding of how gunpowder changed the world. My personal favorite was the story about how, when rifling was first invented, they held an experiment to test whether the spinning of the bullets was attracting or repelling demons, thereby influencing the accuracy. This book gave me an appreciation for both the science and the magic of gunpowder, and I hope I never take it for granted again.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bill Sleeman

    A very good introduction to a specialized subject. Kelly does a fine job explaining the challenges faced in developing gunpowder in the "West" and in the "East" and comparing the two experiences. He also does a good job addressing but not belaboring the moral implications of science and technology employed solely to build bigger and more effective (at killing) weapons. Well researched, cited and informative. A very good introduction to a specialized subject. Kelly does a fine job explaining the challenges faced in developing gunpowder in the "West" and in the "East" and comparing the two experiences. He also does a good job addressing but not belaboring the moral implications of science and technology employed solely to build bigger and more effective (at killing) weapons. Well researched, cited and informative.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Converse

    Gunpowder's effect on history. Now, becuase the propellent used in firearms is not actually (unless you are an enthusiast for "black powder" firearms) gunpoweder, it is back where it started from; fireworks Gunpowder's effect on history. Now, becuase the propellent used in firearms is not actually (unless you are an enthusiast for "black powder" firearms) gunpoweder, it is back where it started from; fireworks

  23. 5 out of 5

    Katy Stauber

    Kind of dry, but pretty thorough. And if you can't be blowing stuff up, the next best thing is to read about it. Kind of dry, but pretty thorough. And if you can't be blowing stuff up, the next best thing is to read about it.

  24. 5 out of 5

    DJMikeG

    Fascinating history of gunpowder, recommended for those who like things that go bang and boom.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    A quick history of gunpowder. Some very interesting stuff about its development and use. It could have been longer and I wouldn't have minded at all. A quick history of gunpowder. Some very interesting stuff about its development and use. It could have been longer and I wouldn't have minded at all.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    Good book very informative. Lots of history and cool stuff.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Brendan

    Not great , but it answered the primary question I had.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Edcon1

    An excellent book that takes the reader from the use of Greek Fire into the development and use of gunpowder and on to the use of explosives in warfare.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ray A

    Excellently presented history of gunpowder; loved the overview presented on the development of the US gunpowder industry

  30. 5 out of 5

    Dawn Paris

    A good overview of how the science of gunpowder evolved and the key people involved in its development.

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