Book Review: Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World


by Jack Kelly

New York: Basic Books, 2004. Pp. 251. . Illus, biblio essay, index. $25.00. ISBN:0-465-03718-6

This isn’t really military history. It’s a social history of an item the primary use of which was military---gunpowder, the substance we now refer to as “black powder.” Author Kelly (apparently a novelist) traces the history of the substance from its inception as entertainment in Chinese fireworks to the more military aspect of things. The various applications are discussed briefly, from guns and artillery to petards (bombs for blowing down castle doors), rockets, and military mines. The detail tends to be anecdotal, for the most part, rather than comprehensive, and the effect is to leave you a bit more knowledgeable than when you started, but not so much that you think you’re an expert. While things are kept brief, the author does a very good job of introducing you to the major characters who invented and refined gunpowder and the various uses of it, from the early inventors to Samuel Colt and E. I. Du Pont. The book is arranged chronologically, chapters covering various stages of the life of gunpowder.

While I enjoyed this book, I don’t know how useful it would be to anyone studying this topic seriously: it takes a rather superficial look at things, and tends to be rather anecdotal. There is some attempt at analysis, mostly noting similarities in people’s reactions to nuclear weapons and gunpowder when each was introduced, with the obvious implication that nukes could prove dangerous. He also notes the irony that gunpowder was conceived as an entertainment, in fireworks, and that remains the principal use of the little that’s still produced.

Reviewer: David W. Nicholas   

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