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

by Jack Kelly, Basic Books, New York, 2005, $14.95.

 Gunpowder—Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics approaches the titular subject in a manner that is broader and more encompassing than any other in recent memory. You won’t be far into Gunpowder before you begin to appreciate the explosive effect this technology has had in the course of military history, as well as also in the realms of politics, science, art, religion and economics.

The chronicle begins in 10th-century China, where this unique compound of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter was developed by Oriental alchemists in the course of their search for an elixir to bestow immortality upon their emperor—an irony of historic proportions. From those ancient beginnings, Jack Kelly launches into a worldwide examination of mankind’s ongoing fascination with “artificial fire.”

Kelly’s prose is smooth and gripping. Gunpowder is sprinkled with quotes from towering figures of history such as Genghis Khan, Francis Bacon, Galileo, William Shakespeare, Robert F. Stockton and Alfred Nobel, giving this compelling read a truly epic perspective.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.