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The history of explosives is, in many ways, the history of human development. Each new invention saw progress made in mining, construction, and of course the 'art' of war. Without explosives, the world would be a much different place today and many of the great historical construction projects could not have been completed.
Progress came at a cost, however, each new invention or refinement to explosives resulted in horrific accidents. These accidental explosions grew in scale as new and more powerful explosives were invented.
This fascinating book tells the story of explosives; from 'Greek fire' through to the thermonuclear bomb. The author G.I. Brown focuses on both the human side (the inventors and business men who made or lost fortunes, and in some cases lost their lives working with these dangerous products. Brown also examines the social and historical impact that these inventions were to have. As well as this, the author examines how the explosives were made and why they behave as they do.
The result is a book with a wider appeal than perhaps the title suggests. It can be read on many levels with different readers enjoying different aspects of the story. Above all, the book is entertaining and informative about some of the most important events in history (development of the atomic bomb and the introduction of Dynamite, for example).
Greek fire is the first 'explosive' examined. This was like early Napalm, and was used by the Byzantium Empire for 800 years, successfully defending their empire from attack. The empire fell only when the more powerful gunpowder was used against it in 1453.
Gunpowder was used for hundreds of years until the middle of the 19th Century. It was not an ideal explosive; its use resulted in huge volumes of acrid smoke being produced. On the battlefield, the fighting soldiers would be enveloped in the smoke within minutes meaning that often, they could not see who they were fighting.
The gruesome story of the Gunpowder Plot is detailed here, with (for me) a new twist. It is possible that the plotters were 'framed' by the secret police of the day to enable further controls on Catholicism to be put into place (this did happen after the plot was 'discovered').
A rather poignant photograph of two signatures of Guy Fawkes is shown. The first, is in a confident, bold script; the second after three days of torture is a feathery scrawl that does not even touch the paper in places. Worse was to follow for Fawkes as he was treated to the barbaric punishment of being hung, drawn, and quartered.
Efforts to replace gunpowder with an improved explosive came to fruition with the invention of nitroglycerine. This was not perfect as nitroglycerine is a notoriously unstable liquid. The Nobel family enter the story here; production of nitroglycerine led to an explosion at their factory and the death of Alfred Nobel's brother.
An interesting photograph is shown in this chapter, of a man overseeing the heating of the nitroglycerine mixture in a large vessel (it was important not to let the mixture overheat as an explosion would result). The man is seated on a one legged stool so that if he falls asleep, he falls over (how anyone could fall asleep sat next to several tonnes of hot nitroglycerine is beyond me)!
Alfred was so moved by the tragedy involving his brother that he worked to make nitroglycerine safer. He invented Dynamite by absorbing the nitroglycerine into an inert powder.
Dynamite was a huge success and revolutionised the explosives industry. Nobel did not rest here, however. He also invented gelignite and the detonator.
He was, however, saddened at the use his products were put to in wars. He commented that "I wish all guns with their belongings and everything could be sent to Hell".
Of course, Nobel, near the end of his life, left instructions in his will to set up the Nobel Prizes, including one for peace. What a wonderful legacy.
The final part of the book tells the story of the development of the atomic bomb. This was an arms race; both the Germans and allies understood the theory behind nuclear explosions. Building a bomb was a huge technical and logistical problem.
The 'Manhattan Project' was led by Robert Oppenheimer and involved the most brilliant physicists of the day. Detonation of the first test bomb, 'Fat Man', appalled the scientists who were developing it. The explosion, with the force of 19,000 tonnes of TNT, moved Oppenheimer to state "Now I am become death, the shatterer of worlds". One of his colleagues made a less poetic pronouncement that "they were all now sons of bitches".
The account of the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although familiar, is chilling and sobering. Hundreds of thousands died immediately from the blast, over the next few weeks of radiation poisoning, and over many years as the result of cancers caused by radioactive fallout.
The book ends with a small chapter on the chemical structures of the various explosives described. The chemists amongst the book's readers will find this interesting, but it can be skipped if required.
I found this readable and absorbing book difficult to put down. The human stories, the highs and lows of invention and accident made for an enjoyable read. I can recommend reading this book to anyone who's interested in history or who would like to know more about explosives through the ages.
The book is available from Amazon resellers from £7.75.