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Reviewed by:
  • Gunpowder, Explosives, and the State: A Technological History
  • David Stewart Bachrach (bio)
Gunpowder, Explosives, and the State: A Technological History Edited by Brenda J. Buchanan. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006. Pp. xxiii+425. $99.95.

This volume, the second collection of its type, had its origins in four gatherings of historians of gunpowder that met between 1996 and 2002 under the auspices of the International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC). As is true of many collections of this type, the implicit argument of the volume as a whole is that the material under consideration is vital to a fuller understanding of a wide range of historical fields. But here it is more than implicit. In the foreword, the eminent historian of military technology Bert Hall accurately and succinctly describes the history of gunpowder as standing “at the crossroads of history of technology, of science, of economics and trade, and of politics” (p. xxiii).

The twenty essays are divided into five sections: Perceptions and Ancient Knowledge, The Production of Saltpetre and Gunpowder in Europe, The Overseas Transfer of Technology from Europe, Military Technicalities, and Modern Developments. A valuable introduction by the editor, Brenda J. Buchanan, helps to orient the reader, tying together the wide range of focused studies through a survey of the role of the state, mercantalist theory, chartered trading companies, and scientific practice in establishing gunpowder as a dominant element in warfare, industry, and commerce over the course of the early modern and modern periods. Each of the essays has a full scholarly apparatus, and the volume as a whole is provided with scores of beautiful images and illustrations, as well as a useful index.

The individual essays cover a very broad geographical and chronological range, including ancient China and India, early modern India, Venice, Iberia, Sweden, and Egypt, the Portuguese maritime empire, and the nineteenth-century United States. Thematically, the volume is equally diverse, considering the origins of gunpowder, its production and storage, the development of gunpowder technology, the transfer of gunpowder technology across cultures, the technology of gunpowder weapons, the place of research and development of gunpowder within the broader compass of the development of European science, and the development of new types of explosive technologies within the context of modern commercial and military competition.

Many of the focused studies provide insight into broader questions of economic and technological development. In their discussion of “Breachloading Guns with Removable Powder Chambers,” for example, Kelly DeVries and Robert Douglas Smith make clear that older technologies continued to be deployed for decades, and even centuries, after “improvements” in design were developed. This insight, which has important implications for historians of technology, parallels similar conclusions drawn by [End Page 785] military historians in other periods as well, including the European Middle Ages and the Roman Empire. Addressing the equally important question regarding means by which technology undergoes substantial geographic diffusion, José Manuel de Mascarenhas’s study of overseas Portuguese gunpowder factories during the period of empire demonstrates ways in which gunpowder, as well as industrial processes and infrastructure, made their way from Europe to Asia and Latin America.

In sum, this volume is a welcome addition to the history of technology, early-modern and modern military history, and the history of industry and science, as well as to the more focused area of gunpowder studies. These essays will be of considerable value to scholars and graduate students in many fields of European, Asian, and U.S. history.

David Stewart Bachrach

Dr. Bachrach is assistant professor of medieval history at the University of New Hampshire.