2007
02.19

This is an interesting book by Clive Ponting. Since gunpowder is no longer in wide use, it is natural to forget how important of a material it was. Gunpowder was invented by Chinese Alchemists looking for elixir (i.e., medicine that would guarantee ethereal life for everybody). [Which just comes to show that (i) history has a terrible sense of humor considering the death toll from gunpowder, and (ii) it does not matter what you search for, as long as you are searching for something.] It was the only explosive known from around 800 A.D. till the middle of the 19th century. It is made out of Sulphur, charcoal and Saltpetre (potassium nitrate). Until recently European believed they had discovered gunpowder (despite clear historical evidence to the contrary).

In fact, the author of this book derives great pleasure from describing how Europe was a backward and primitive place compared to China, the Arab world, Korea, Japan, Mongols, and the Ottoman empire, till three to four hundred years ago.

It is interesting that saltpetre was by far the hardest material to find out of the three. As Europe plunged happily into its wars, it became critical to manufacture it in great quantities. In the beginning, it was made by extracting it from huge piles of dung. Later, complicated process involving dung and urine was developed. The situation got so desperate that states (France/UK) tried to collect all human waste in cities so that it could be used to this end. Which failed miserably, naturally.

The author makes the case that the expensive price of making gunpowder, guns, canons, etc, had accelerated the unification of large number of small kingdoms in Europe into larger political entities. An interesting point which definitely applies also in more modern times.

Gunpowder was widely spread by the Mongols that had stolen it from the Chinese. This was the main technological advantages.

It is interesting to follow the long and painful history of guns. The basic design of guns we know now, is pretty recent. Older designs were much more dangerous and slow to load. Indeed, the soldier had to push gunpowder down the gun barrel. Then, push down the bullet itself. Next, it would have to aim it at the enemy (for a very long time, aiming was useless, and all the soldier was expected to do, was to level the gun in the general direction of the enemy), and then lighten the gunpowder through the special hole made to it in the gun. You can imagine how dangerous this was in the battlefield, with gunpowder flying around as your comrades were loading their own guns. We are speaking about 2-3 minutes between shots.

But the most important conclusion of this book, is that the Chinese did it first. They invented the gunpowder, paper, printing and magnets (Karl Marx was completely against these inventions, BTW). Except for sliced bread, what did the Europeans invent?

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