A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the Modern World

A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the Modern World

by Stephen Bown

View All Available Formats & Editions

Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel's discovery of dynamite made possible the famous industrial megaprojects that transformed the countryside and defined the era, including the St. Gothard rail tunnel through the Alps, the clearing of New York harbor, the Panama Canal, and countless others. Dynamite also caused terrible injuries and great loss of life, and, in some cases,


Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel's discovery of dynamite made possible the famous industrial megaprojects that transformed the countryside and defined the era, including the St. Gothard rail tunnel through the Alps, the clearing of New York harbor, the Panama Canal, and countless others. Dynamite also caused terrible injuries and great loss of life, and, in some cases, incalculable and irreparable environmental damage. Nobel was one of the richest men in a society rapidly transforming under the power of his invention, but with a troubled conscience, he left his estate to the establishment of the world-famous prizes that bear his name.

As the use of explosives soared and growing populations consumed more food, nations scrambled for the scarce yet vital organic ingredient needed for both. The quest for nitrates takes us from the rural stables and privies of preindustrial Europe to the monopoly trading plantations in India and to the Atacama Desert in South America. Nitrates were as valuable in the nineteenth century as oil is in the twenty-first and were the cause of similar international jockeying and power politics.

The "nitrogen problem" of creating inorganic nitrates was solved by an enigmatic German scientist named Fritz Haber. His breakthrough not only prolonged the First World War but became the foundation of the green revolution and the tripling of world population since then. Haber is also known as the "father of gas warfare" for his work on poison gas. When he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in chemistry, it sparked international outrage and condemnation.

A Most Damnable Invention is a human tale of scientific obsession, shadowy immorality, and historical irony, and a testament to the capacity for human ingenuity during times of war.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bown follows his well-received Scurvy with another sedulously researched and well-written popular history. He's particularly good at penning provocative theories that link seemingly modest events to monumental changes in the course of history. For example, prior to the Franco-Prussian War, the French government, unlike Prussia, refused to allow its munitions experts to develop weaponry utilizing Alfred Nobel's powerful new explosive, dynamite. The result, according to Bown, was a humiliating defeat that forced the French to submit to onerous treaty terms that helped set the stage for WWI. Bown's knowledge of his subject is impressive, and he has interesting things to say about the science and scientists central to the development of explosives; the role these explosives played in Japan, China and India; and positive changes facilitated by the use of high explosives in mining and construction. Bown also has a good eye for the unintended consequences, ironies and contradictions that are the product of social and technological forces of great magnitude. That Alfred Nobel used the proceeds of his vast munitions fortune to fund the Nobel Prizes is perhaps the ultimate example. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How the chemistry of nitrogen-based compounds, crucial to the making of both explosives and fertilizer, has altered the course of history. Canadian writer Bown (Scurvy, 2004) explores some of history's dustiest galleries to marshal personalities and events that, having changed the world, have been largely forgotten. This somewhat tortuous but logically connected journey begins with gunpowder, a plaything for the Chinese perhaps over a millennium ago, but seriously pursued as a weapon of mass destruction in Europe by the 13th century. Thus begins the frantic quest for saltpeter (potassium nitrate, also known as niter), an essential gunpowder component, along with sulfur and charcoal; although it naturally occurs when human or animal wastes saturate-and thus fertilize-the soil, the European powers developed such an appetite for saltpeter that large tracts in tropical colonies like India were dedicated to its cultivation and production. The author ventures through the ebb and flow of nitrate commerce as the vast, (literally) stinking "guano island" deposits off the Chilean coast become, essentially, the Saudi Arabia of a 19th century world in need of both nitrogen-based fertilizers and yet more gunpowder. Meanwhile, Alfred Nobel (1833-96) formulated nitroglycerine, first called "blasting oil," and in 1866, following some harrowing disasters, refined it into more stable dynamite that became a prime enabler for the modern heavy construction and mining industries. On the eve of World War I, when depletion of the world's nitrates loomed as an impending disaster (paralleling modern petroleum dependence), the German chemist Fritz Haber invented a process for fixation of nitrogen from the air, thuscheaply synthesizing nitrates and, Bown suggests, saving civilization from starvation. Since Haber also worked on deployment of chlorine gas as a weapon first used by the Germans in France, his awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1918 remains highly controversial. Plodding early on, but Bown effectively revisits the geopolitical intrigues that accrued around a now forgotten commodity.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.72(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.03(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Most Damnable Invention


Playing with Fire

A Thousand Years of Explosives


It hath been doubted whether so ingenious and dreadful a Machine could be a humane Invention ... when it was first published, the World thought she had lost all her strength; for what more terrible or violent could humane Wit invent to its own destruction, than this artificial Lightning and Thunder.

—William Clarke, 1670



Four centuries ago, on January 31, 1606, a bedraggled, haggard, and limping man was led through the gathered throng at the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. Past the laid-out corpses of his comrades and fellows, past the solemn deputies and mounted justices and sheriffs, past the pike-bearing men-at-arms who kept the surging onlookers at bay. He was roughly hauled up the stairs onto a newly constructed scaffolding in the center of the square and turned to face the black-hooded hangman. Crowds congregated in the vast courtyard, hoping for a good view of the action; vendors sold foods and beer. Whether the day was pervaded by an air of lighthearted gaiety or profound import is not reliably documented, but it was a significant moment in England's history, and the people knew it. The man's imminent death was a cause for celebration, however muted during the final moments. After making a short speech, the hunched, red-bearded man bowed weakly for the noose, slowly crossed himself, and prepared to die.

The man's name was Guy Fawkes and his crime was none otherthan high treason. A quick and foreordained trial had found him and a handful of others guilty of a most horrendous and frightening crime: the attempted assassination of the new king, James I, his queen, and the lords of the realm while they gathered in the House of Lords for the opening of Parliament. The new king had only ascended to the throne of England after the death of Elizabeth a few years before. Fawkes had signed his confession, his own death warrant, in a crippled, barely legible scrawl that reveals the extent of his torture. After nearly three days in the Tower of London, stretched on the rack and mercilessly squeezed by the manacles to extract a suitable statement, he had broken down and revealed the details of his bold and fiendish plot.

Nothing in Fawkes's upbringing destined him for notoriety and revulsion as a national traitor and potential murderer. The date of his death is still commemorated four centuries later. Born into a respectable family in York in 1570, he enjoyed a good education and a comfortable upbringing. His father died when he was eight, and for nine years he was raised by his mother. She remarried when he was seventeen, and her new husband was a recusant gentleman who first introduced Fawkes to the Catholic faith. Fawkes came of age amid the religious turmoil of the Protestant Reformation, a northern European religious movement that sought to shake off the bonds of papal authority. England was the latest in a series of countries, centering on Switzerland, Scandinavia, Scotland, and many German states, that were frustrated by the corruption of the church. Henry VIII established the Anglican church and began confiscating Roman Catholic church property and dissolving monasteries. For much of the second half of the sixteenth century opposing factions struggled to place either Catholic or Protestant monarchs on the English throne. When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, conflict with Catholic Spain escalated and the plight of Catholics in Englandgrew worse. Many of the Catholic families had their lands confiscated, and they were driven underground, to practice their religion in secret to avoid reprisals. When Philip II of Spain launched his grand armada in 1588, it was an attempt to depose Elizabeth and set a Catholic monarch on the throne and outlaw the Protestant faith. It was a savage and barbarous age. The separation of church and state and religious tolerance, even between Christian factions, lay in the distant future.

At some point the young Fawkes converted to Catholicism under the influence of his stepfather and decided to leave England for Flanders, where he enlisted in the Spanish army (then occupying the Netherlands in a bloody war to crush the growth of Protestantism). He was reputedly a strong and calm commander "of excellent parts, very resolute and universally learned." He earned a reputation as "a man of great piety ... remarkable for his punctual attendance upon religious observance." After he had served with distinction in the Spanish army for years, the issue of religion in England again raised its ugly head. Elizabeth I died in 1603, and the throne passed to the Scottish king James V. English Catholics in exile agreed to send Fawkes on a mission to Spain to obtain support for another Spanish invasion of England, claiming that the English people would eagerly rise up and overthrow the new king, now James I. When his plea failed, Fawkes returned to Flanders and met with several other fanatical men who resolved on a plan to murder the new king themselves in defense of their religion.

The ringleader of the small group was a recusant country gentleman from Warwickshire named Robert Catesby. He urged blowing up Westminster because "in that place, they have done us all the mischief and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment." At first the plotters began digging a tunnel, and when this became too difficult, they rented a vacant storeroomunder the Parliament that at one time had been used to store coal. They then somehow secretly ferried thirty-six hundred-pound barrels of gunpowder across the Thames from Catesby's house and trundled it down into the storeroom and covered the mountain of casks with firewood. The opening of Parliament was originally scheduled for February 1605 and was then postponed until October 3 and then again to November 5. Fawkes, who had taken on the role of firing the powder because of his military experience, occasionally checked it and replaced any that had become too "decayed" to explode after such long storage in the damp cellar.

Meanwhile, Catesby had widened the plot and taken in more conspirators. They planned to flee to Europe soon after the explosion to spread the good news and rally support for an uprising among Catholic troops stationed in Flanders. On Saturday October 26, an anonymous servant delivered a nondescript letter to William Parker, Lord Monteagle, as he settled down for dinner in the evening (Monteagle was married to the sister of one of the newly recruited conspirators). "This Parliament," the letter read, "shall receive a terrible blow, and yet they shall not see who hurts them." Monteagle immediately raised the alarm. A thorough, yet discreet, scouring of the premises revealed the unusually large pile of firewood in the cellar and a man claiming to be John Johnson guarding it. Johnson, who was actually Fawkes, was apparently "a man shrewd enough, but up to no good." He was immediately arrested and dragged away for questioning. He later claimed that had he been prepared or quick enough when the guards entered the cellar, he would have "blown him up, house, himself, and all."

Later that night Fawkes was presented to the king and asked why he took part in such a cowardly scheme. "A dangerous disease required a desperate remedy" was his defiant reply. The next morning James I issued a letter instructing his constables that "The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, and so by degreesproceeding to the worst, and so God speed your goode worke." After three dreadful days a mangled and broken Fawkes confessed all, revealing the names of the other conspirators and that his motivation was "for the advancement of the Catholic Faith and saving his own soul." After a swift mock trial he was led to his death. When he was jerked into the air and swung from the gibbet, it was, according to the official government propaganda of the time, "to the great joy of all the beholders, that the land was ended of so wicked a villainy." In quick succession several others were similarly hanged, their bodies left to swing erratically, before the ropes were cut and they dropped unceremoniously to the earth. A contemporary engraving of the scene shows the curious throngs ringing the courtyard while pike-wielding soldiers keep order. The still live bodies of the conspirators were dragged by horses around the clearing (drawing) before being castrated, eviserated, and beheaded. Each limp limb was tied to a stout horse, which then surged forward at a gallop, tearing the corpse into four parts (quartering), according to the brutal custom of the day. The date of Fawkes's capture, November 5, 1605, was proclaimed a public holiday, which is still celebrated today with firecrackers and the burning of effigies. One of the liturgies of the Church of England soon afterward was titled A form of prayer with thanksgiving to be used yearly upon the fifth day of November; for the happy deliverance of the King, and the three estates of the realm, from the most traiterous and bloudy intended massacre by gun-powder.

Historians have since questioned the accuracy of the official government story of the time. The scene of the fiendish, mustachioed Fawkes hunched over a burning slow match adjacent to a great mound of gunpowder, cackling and singing his defiance of the king and the Protestant faith, seems a little too contrived. Many historians now believe that the plot was as much a government scheme to flush out disloyal Catholics as a secret plot toblow up Parliament, or alternately that the brash public display of the execution was orchestrated to conceal how easily the plot almost succeeded and how easily the government monopoly on gunpowder production was circumvented.

Up until this time the potential of gunpowder was still being explored and was not entirely appreciated. Although it had been used in guns and cannons for several centuries, their effectiveness was only slowly improving to the point where the damage they inflicted was equal to the frightening noise and billowing smoke. Fawkes's creative and new use of gunpowder as a targeted explosive outside of cannons foreshadowed the tremendous power that would in the late nineteenth century be easily available in the form of dynamite and other high explosives. The Gunpowder Plot for the first time revealed just how powerful black powder could be and starkly exposed its awesome capacity to play kingmaker and determine the destiny of nations. In the political turmoil and uncertainty following Queen Elizabeth's death, and the ongoing religious struggles between Catholics and Protestants, the near miss of the plot, how close the plotters had come to eliminating a government they despised, turned heads across Europe. If the relative simplicity of the plan became generally known, future plots by religious zealots and usurpers would be assured. The origin of the vast quantity of gunpowder placed by Fawkes under the Houses of Parliament was never mentioned in the official records of the trial, probably to conceal just how easily such a frightening and remarkably dangerous substance could be obtained by amateurs, even though it was technically under government control. It was one thing for an assassin to attack by wielding a knife or by shooting a crossbow or placing poison in food, quite another for a handful of disgruntled fanatics to bring down the entire government with ease and without a moment's notice.



Three and a half centuries before Guy Fawkes tried to explode the English Parliament a curmudgeonly middle-aged English scientist and friar named Roger Bacon staggered back from a terrifying explosion in his Oxford monastery cell. A jarring boom was followed by a billowing cloud of noxious gases from a crucible on the table where he had been experimenting. Coughing and choking on the brimstone fumes and shaken by the lightninglike eruption, he quickly moved to conceal the evidence of his experiment. His haste and secrecy were prompted by fear both for the destructive capacity he had unleashed and for his own safety if he were branded a heretic for toying with magic or matters of the devil. Unlike his other discoveries, which he wrote about in great detail, his experiments with black powder he concealed and only alluded to in his writings. Bacon was one of themost famous and forward-thinking philosophers of his time, and one of the great practical experimenters of the medieval era.

Born at Ilchester in Somerset into a wealthy family in 1214, Bacon quickly earned a reputation as a bold and original thinker. After receiving his degrees from Oxford, he studied and taught at the University of Paris, then the center of learning in the European world, where he earned the title "Doctor Mirabilis" (Astounding Doctor) for his brilliant theorizing and knack for getting to the heart of matters. After a distinguished career at the university, Bacon joined the Franciscans in the 1250s, probably for health reasons, and returned to England. His passionate abhorrence of dogma and superstition soon ran him afoul of the church authorities—a conflict the deeply religious friar struggled with his entire life. Bacon was a participant in the quarrels between science and religion that would dominate much of European thought for centuries thereafter. Some historians consider him to be the first modern scientist. He earned a reputation as a sorcerer, alchemist, and magician despite his lifelong insistence on empiricism and objectivity.

A deeply religious and devout Christian, Bacon passionately believed that a failure to explore the world was an insult to God, and that it was humanity's obligation to study nature. "If someone who has never seen fire," he wrote, "claims through reasoning that fire burns, changes things and destroys them, the mind of his listener will not be satisfied with that, and will not avoid fire before he has placed his hand or something combustible on the fire, to prove through experience what his reasoning had taught him. But once it has had the experience of combustion the mind is assured and rests in the light of truth. Reasoning is not enough—one needs experience." In addition to suggesting a much needed calendar reform to the church, he set out to show that seemingly supernatural phenomena were not the product of dark magical forces, but were rather products of the natural world and reproducible by experimentation. Two centuries before Leonardo daVinci, he predicted the development of "things of Nature that will amaze and astonish us" such as "perpetuall lights, and baths burning without end," spectacles, telescopes, magnifying glasses, flying machines, and motorized ships. In 1266, many of these observations were published in his Opus maius, a tome only recognized centuries later for its astonishing modernity. "These are marvailous things," he wrote, "if men knewe how to use them effectually in due quantitie and matter."

Bacon's most famous discovery was the recipe by which "the sound of thunder may be artificially reproduced by natural causes." In the Middle Ages, despite Bacon's insistence otherwise, the study of science was often blended with a belief in magic powers. Although the church was naturally suspicious of this line of study, Bacon was a keen alchemist and believer in the philosopher's stone, the universal secret to turning ordinary metals into gold. Most of his experiments involved a primitive form of trial-and-error chemistry, which is probably how he stumbled upon the formula for black powder. Bacon had been scouring ancient Arabic texts and had come upon a recipe for exploding powder, which was at one time believed to be related to the elixir of immortality. Bacon instinctively grasped that the practical application of this black powder would not be for the furtherance of science but as a tool in war. "Noyses may bee made in the aire like thunders," he wrote in The Mirror of Alchemy. "Yea with greater horror then those that come by Nature: for a little matter fitted to the quantitie of a thumbe, maketh a horrible noyse, and wonderfull lightning ... whereby any citie and armie may be destroyed."

Out of fear of persecution and the violent potential of his discovery, Bacon concealed his recipe for black powder in a cryptic Latin code that was not deciphered for over six centuries. Bacon continued to pursue his alchemical studies, repeatedly circumventing attempts to censure his experiments and writings. Boldness and independence were not traits appreciated in the thirteenthcentury, and in 1277 he was imprisoned by Jerome of Ascali, minister general of the Franciscans. "By the advice of many friars," reads the pronouncement, "condemned and denounced the teaching of Roger Bacon of England, master of sacred theology, as containing some suspected novelties, on account of which the said Roger was condemned to prison, with the order to all brethren that none should hold his doctrine but avoid it as reprobated by the Order." He was released fifteen years later, a year before his death in 1292 at the age of seventy-eight.

Within a half century of Bacon's death, gunpowder was well on the road to common use in the military; its civilian applications in mining and road building were still centuries in the future. Although Bacon is given credit for the first written description of black powder in Europe, it had been in common use for centuries in Asia.



The quest to harness the destructive power of fire and explosives is as old as civilization. The earliest known incendiary is Greek fire, a term used to describe many different substances that blended sulfur with tar, rosin, bitumen, or other combustibles. Greek fire was first used in the Aegean region in the fifth century B.C. in naval battles and to burn city gates. Thucydides describes the use of flaming blow tubes in the battle of Delium in 424 B.C. during the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. "They took a great beam, sawed in two parts, both of which they completely hollowed out, and then fitted the two parts closely together again, as in the joints of a pipe. A cauldron was then attached with chains to one end of the beam, and an iron tube, curving down into the cauldron, was inserted ... . When this machine was brought up close to the city wall, they inserted into their end of the beam large bellows and blew through them. The blast, confined inside the tube, went strait into the cauldron which was filled with lighted coals,sulfur and pitch. A great flame was produced which set fire to the wall and made it impossible for the defenders to stay at their posts. They abandoned their positions and fled; and so the fortification was captured." The use of Greek fire and similar substances remained the most terrible weapon for centuries and was adapted for naval use when kegs of sulfur, pitch, and tow were catapulted toward enemy ships where they exploded into flames that were exceptionally difficult to extinguish as they spread on the water. During the seventh century A.D. a Greek or Syrian alchemist and architect named Kallinikos, or Callinicus, improved upon the recipe and potency of the original "wild fire" by blending sulfur, crude naphtha, and quicklime—a toxic brew that formed an explosive gas that spread rapidly when exposed to water and then air.

Greek fire proved to be so powerful, effective, and frightening that its manufacture was a tightly held secret that kept the Islamic invaders from plundering the legendary city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, for centuries. In 718 a grand Islamic invasion force under the caliphs of Damascus, with a fleet numbering over a thousand galleys, was besieging Constantinople and was virtually destroyed by the terrible oily flames that spread across the water and burned the hulls of the ships. The Roman historian Pliny recorded the use of Greek fire in The Historie of the Worlde, "Now let us relate some strange wonders of fire also, which is the fourth element of nature. But first, out of waters. In a citie of Comagene, named Samosatis, there is a pond, yeelding forth a kind of slimie mud (called Matha) which will burne cleare. When it meeteth with any thing solide and hard, it sticketh to it like glew: also if it bee touched, it followeth them that flee from it. By this meanes the townesmen defended their walls, when Lucullus gave the assault, and his souldiours fried and burned in their owne armours." Greek fire also saved Constantinople from an invasion from the north in 941 when Prince Igor of the Kingdom of Kiev launched a fleet across the Black Sea to raid the great city. Accordingto the Russian Primary Chronicle, "The Greeks met them in their boats and began to shoot fire through pipes onto the Russian boats. And a fearsome wonder was to be seen ... . The Greeks possess something like the lightning in the heavens, and they released it and burned us." During the Crusades, Islamic defenders hurled small glass or clay pots filled with flammable petroleum and lime mixtures down on Christian invaders.

In the thirteenth century, around the time of Roger Bacon's death, an unknown quasi-mythical figure named Markus the Greek published a book on pyrotechnics called The Book of Fires for Consuming the Enemy. The thirty-five-page tract is a list of recipes for various types of Greek fire that probably had been used for centuries before he recorded them. Incendiary weapons took many surprising and terrifying forms by the time of Markus the Greek. One of the more outlandish recipes contained in The Book of Fires describes how burning birds can be effective weapons. "Another kind of fire for burning enemies wherever they are," reported the author, "can be made by taking petroleum, liquid pitch, and oil of sulphur. Put all these in a pottery jar buried in horse manure for fifteen days. Take it out and smear with it crows which can be flown against the tents of the enemy. When the sun rises and before the heat has melted it the mixture will inflame. But we advise that it should be used before sunrise or after sunset." Presumably the burning birds would ignite the tents where the enemy soldiers slept and consume them in a fiery mass of burning fabric, or at least cause confusion and disturb their slumber. Fire birds are also mentioned in early Chinese and Arabic writings. The world's first mobile battlefield flamethrower was perfected in China by the early fifteenth century. Dozens of arm-length bamboo tubes, filled with a flammable concoction, were suspended by a wheeled three-meter-high rack that was rolled in front of marching troops. The tubes were ignited in sequence, with the objective of decapitating "the enemy soldiers, and to cutoff the legs of their horses," according to a military treatise called the Fire-Drake Manual. "A single one of these shields is in itself worth ten brave soldiers."

The first primitive black powders also had their origin in China, in the form of firecrackers and smoke signals, as early as the tenth century. The historical record is sketchy and incomplete, and historians disagree whether the Chinese were merely toying with a combustible smoke-producing powder or had actually discovered the explosive black powder. If they had come upon such a deadly military weapon it would have remained a secret as long as possible to preserve their technological advantage. By the mid-eleventh century, however, the production of sulfur and saltpeter was under state control and their sale to foreigners was forbidden. Written descriptions of celebrations from the thirteenth century describe flaming balls and sky-borne sparks and flashes accompanied by thunderous noise. One account from 1264 reveals how uncontrollable the early fireworks were: "When the Emperor Li Tsung retired, he prepared a feast in honor of his mother, the Empress-Mother Kung Sheng. A display of fireworks was given in the courtyard. One of these, of the 'ground rat' type, went strait up the steps to the throne of the Empress-Mother, and gave her quite a fright. She stood up in anger, gathered her skirts around her, and stopped the feast. Li, being very worried, arrested the officials who had been responsible for making the arrangements for the occasion, and awaited orders from the Empress-Mother. At dawn the next day he went to apologize to her, saying that the responsible officials had been careless, and took the blame on himself. But the Empress-Mother laughed and said, 'That thing seemed to come specially to frighten me, but probably it was an unintentional mistake, and it can be forgiven'."

Mongol armies invading Poland and Hungary in the late thirteenth century reportedly used primitive bombs consisting of bamboo tubes loaded with black powder and sharp stones as projectiles.Black powder featured in the thirteenth-century writings of Arabic writer Abd Allah, Roger Bacon, and Count Albert of Bollstadt, Albertus Magnus. The first description of a primitive bomb comes from Markus the Greek in The Book of Fires from around the same time. "The second kind of flying fire is made in this way ... . which these three things are very finely powdered on a marble slab. Then put as much powder as is desired into a case to make flying fire or thunder." How, when, and exactly who is responsible for the first black powder, and how it spread throughout Eurasia is nearly impossible to determine accurately. The evidence is vague, convoluted, and ultimately equivocal. The historian G. I. Brown writes in The Big Bang: "Any researcher is soon entangled in a web of mistakes, misinterpretations, and misrepresentations and the chance of finding a definitive answer has always been rather bleak." Nevertheless, it is clear that by the fourteenth century black powder was being experimented with throughout China, the Middle East, and Europe.

The earliest black powder, a blend of three rather mundane, naturally occurring substances, sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, was unreliable and difficult to use. The ingredients were generally impure and separated during transportation or storage, or easily became damp. Because it was uniformly ground, black powder could be packed too tightly into a weapon, slowing down combustion and causing misfires. Black powder burnt irregularly and clogged firearms after only a few shots. It produced tremendous quantities of smoke that blocked vision and ruined secrecy. Its use was an art as much as a skill, and required extensive practice rather than mere knowledge of proper handling procedures. The English gunner William Bourne explained in 1587 in his treatise The Art of Shooting in Great Ordinance, the tricky and fickle properties of working with early black powder, which was called serpentine because of its tortuous, unpredictable nature. "The powder rammed too hard," he observed, " ... it will be long beforethe piece goes off ... . The powder too loose will make the shot come short of the mark ... . Put up the powder with the rammer head somewhat close, but bear it not too hard."

By the late sixteenth century, the quality and strength of black powder was greatly improved by the technique of corning. Premixed powder was soaked in alcohol and water, dried, and then broken into crumbs of a uniform size that resulted in quick, reliable combustion. Corned powder was also more moisture resistant, and more suitable for use in the cannons of men-of-war and other armed ships. While the serpentine black powder was ground using a mortar and pestle, the improved corned powder was made using hand-operated stamping mills. One hundred years later, by the turn of the eighteenth century, great water-powered rolling mills remorselessly pulverized the alcohol-soaked powder and combined it into a dense substance known as mill cake or press cake. The press cake was mixed so thoroughly by the crushing that its components would not separate during transportation, and it was sieved to assure uniform grain size. The corned powder, using properly blended pure ingredients, was so effective that the recipe remained unchanged for more than three hundred years. The late-seventeenth-century writer and natural philosopher William Clarke wrote of the potency of corned powder that "since its first Invention to this very day, none could invent the like ... a Fire so quick, vigorous, potent, dreadful, and not to be extinguish'd till wholly consumed."

Gunpowder's potency and power, however, comes from containment. When it is ignited by a flame (around 600 degrees Fahrenheit or 300 degrees centigrade) in the open, black powder quickly burns away in a cloud of smoke. Only when combustion is forced in one direction by containment, in a gun barrel for instance, do the expanding gasses rapidly build up enough pressure to launch a projectile, a round stone or iron ball, with the force to maim and kill, or to smash through wood and stone. Without thecapacity to effectively trap, compress, and direct the power of the expanding gases, black powder's practical applications were limited. The era of gunpowder truly began when an effective recipe for black powder was combined with an effective tool for containing the explosion and launching a snugly fitting projectile. But what is simple in theory was difficult to achieve in practice. The origin of the earliest guns is as obscure as the origin of black powder.

Two crouching figures carved in a Buddhist cave in Szechuan Province in China appear to show the world's earliest black powder weapons. One clutches a smoking hand grenade and the other holds at his hip a fat glob-shaped gun with a blast shooting forth from the open end. Dating from the early twelfth century, these images have pushed the earliest use of guns back by nearly a century. The scarcity of references to these weapons indicates that they probably were not widely used or had not yet been perfected. The earliest guns in Arabia date from the early fourteenth century and were constructed out of bamboo tubes reinforced with iron bands. A charge of black powder propelled an arrow, probably less effectively than a trained bowman because of the irregular bore of the tube and the loose fit of the projectile. In 1327 the first image of a gun as an ungainly vase-shaped cannon appears in Europe in On the Majesty, Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings by the English soldier Walter de Milamete. By the fourteenth century, primitive cannons were being developed and used throughout feudal Europe. In 1331 a German army hauled cannons over a mountain pass into Italy. In 1346 English records show the purchase of black powder components for "the King's guns" before the Battle of Crecy.

These first primitive guns, odd-looking pear-shaped contraptions, consisted of bars of iron held together by hoops like a barrel. They produced a horrendous noise and great clouds of dirty smoke. They frequently exploded and killed or maimed the operators, causing more damage through fear and novelty than theshot. According to legend they were invented by Berthold Schwartz, a "German Monk, or Chymical Philosopher, who was a compleat qualified person in whom there was such a consociation of Arts and Arms." "Black Berthold" reputedly lived in the city of Freiburg, which by the late fourteenth century was a center for gunnery training and forging. A fanciful engraving from several centuries after his death depicts him as a balding scholar garbed simply as a monk, closely observing an explosion erupting from a metal mortar in a primitive laboratory. Whether Berthold existed or not has not been reliably established, and many historians consider him to be a mythic figure, an amalgam and personification of the various technological developments in the vicinity of Freiburg. In the fifteenth century, the development of gunnery technology advanced rapidly, particularly in Europe, because of the technical skill of medieval bell makers at casting large bronze cathedral bells. Large cannon were cast using the same procedure.

Although cannons, or bombards as they were called, had caused rapid changes to the governing social structure of Europe by the end of the fifteenth century, small arms did not reach their pinnacle of military use until the early sixteenth century after the quality of gunpowder was perfected and gun design had improved. With the invention of a gun called the arquebus, using the matchlock mechanism, followed by the musket and regulated uniform shot size, guns became a standard feature of a soldier's outfit and arms. The demand for guns and hence black powder grew dramatically throughout the sixteenth century. By the time of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, and increasingly in the years that followed, securing a stable national supply of black powder was vital to the survival of European nations.

The recipe for gunpowder is simple and straightforward, but acquiring the ingredients in a pure form in quantities sufficient to meet the rapidly growing demand proved to be beyond the capacityof most nations. One of the key components of gunpowder was so valuable that wars were fought over it, and great commercial ventures were founded to scour the world for alternate natural sources. The hunt for this elusive, yet vital, substance led to some of the most bizarre and intrusive regulations and laws ever, and would eventually transcend the national boundaries of European nations as they exported their internecine quarrels around the globe. It was the beginning of a centuries-long quest for raw material that intensified with the development of new and more powerful explosives.

A MOST DAMNABLE INVENTION. Copyright © 2005 by Stephen R. Bown. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Stephen R. Bown was born in Ottawa, Canada, and graduated in history from the University of Alberta. He has a special interest in the history of science and exploration. His previous books are The Naturalists: Scientific Travelers in the Golden Age of National History and Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. He lives in the Canadian Rockies with his wife and two young children.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >