Consider gunpowder's history -- and when it gave up smoking

On Books

May 30, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

During the last year of the Nixon administration, again in Bill Clinton's declining presidential years and then when weapons of mass destruction seemed terminally elusive, the land was alive with yelping for "the smoking gun!" Imagine the zealotry and woe that could have been saved if the massed pundits and panjandrums of the United States had realized that around 1890, smokeless gunpowder came into widespread use -- and guns ceased smoking.

That is not, of course, punctiliously true. Smokeless gunpowders do leave wisps of particulate residue in the air. But compared with the great billowing clouds that were produced for almost a dozen centuries by black powder explosions, it's nothing. Consider this thoughtful line from a well-grounded description of the first wave of an early charge in the Battle of Gettysburg: "Smoke, the most distinctive feature of every gunpowder battlefield, immediately began to obscure the scene. It stung eyes and seared lungs. Gunners fired in virtual blindness."

That's from Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, by Jack Kelly (Basic Books, 288 pages, $25), a fascinating, encompassing story of one of the most important manmade substances in history.

Its earliest tracings come from about 850 A.D. in China, where it was developed in the quest for potions that would achieve immortality or repel evil spirits or both. "Black powder" is made by combining sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter -- mainly potassium nitrate. The first Chinese military employment of gunpowder -- in bombs -- was noted around 1040, though the principal use continued to be pyrotechnics. The earliest gun-like devices are traced to the late 1200s.

Its first recorded use in Europe was in 1267. It clearly came from China, but how it got there is far from certain. Arabs were using "fire lances" by 1280. Black powder was superceded more than a century ago by cordite, nitroglycerin, TNT. It then became obsolete except as a historic curiosity and for use in ornamental fireworks.

Kelly interweaves intense, fast-moving anecdotes of military history with counterpoint narratives of technical developments of powder and guns and the evolution of military and social attitudes. Much of the book is anecdotal, reaching back for intricate chemical, technical and social details a millennium and more ago.

Kelly manages to keep his narrative under control. He writes brightly, freshly. He takes bits and pieces of public records and other preserved sources and uses them illuminatingly: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Albrecht Durer and other artists, for example, became adept at designing fortifications, which became increasingly important -- and difficult -- as gunpowder and gun making progressed.

He treats gunpowder chemistry as a series of minor mysteries and makes them exciting when they are understood or resolved. Early on, the manufacturing processes were closer to alchemy than what we think of as chemistry. Well into the 1400s, "science" was mainly superstition. Processes that made gunpowder manufacture more effective were come across by chance rather than any analytic process.

Perhaps the most interesting -- and important -- idea that Kelly puts forward is the extent to which gunpowder and the efforts to understand how it worked laid foundations for enormous amounts of unrelated scientific progress, from the 1600s onward, including basic concepts of chemistry and physics. Kelly has collected an impressive list of legends and fables about gunpowder and its invention and spread. He takes clear pleasure in debunking many of them.

Hand-to-hand combat, personal confrontation, had been the standard of military honor since deep in prehistory. Even the English longbow was initially regarded as a "cowardly" instrument because of the great distance between the archer and his target. But in the 15th century, powder became increasingly sophisticated and guns more adaptable and portable. War changed, fundamentally. Remarkably belatedly, in the first half of the 17th century, gunpowder began to be used in mining, clearing canals and quarrying stone.

But the main use remained warfare, and increasingly at sea. "Few events, even in war," Kelly writes with characteristic evocative power, "match the naval fight of the gunpowder era for sheer madness. That two bands of poor, illiterate, scurvy-ridden men, kidnapped and driven by the whip, should be induced to fire at each other from point-blank range with massive guns -- it was a ritual of almost incomprehensible savagery and barbarism. That it should have continued and reached its apogee in the Age of Enlightenment is a deep paradox that any theory of political conflict is feeble to explain."

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