A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder

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JHU Press, 1999 - History - 381 pages
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For nearly 600 years, from the battles of the early fourteenth century to the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, firearms derived from gunpowder and other chemicals defined the frightful extent of war. The apparatus and materials used in World War I would have been familiar to our remote ancestors. In this classic work, first published in 1960, James Riddick Partington provides a worldwide survey of the evolution of incendiary devices, Greek fire, and gunpowder.

Greek fire, a composition Partington believes was made of a distilled petroleum fraction and other ingredients (but not saltpetre), was most famously used in the sieges of Constantinople and the Crusades. Partington moves from its antecedents—other incendiaries used in ancient warfare—to European gunpowder recipe books (The Latin Book of Fire, Bellifortis, and Feuerwerkbuch) and the history of infernal machines, mines, canon, small arms, and artillery. His book includes chapters on gunpowder and weapons in Muslim lands, India, and China—including fire books, the use of gunpowder as a propellant, the artillery of the Mughal Emperors, and the use of saltpetre in explosives. He traces the development of gunpowder to eleventh-century China and cites the first known mention and picture of a firearm in 1326.

"The history of gunpowder and firearms has attracted many authors with varying interests. The general historian must take account of major inventions effecting revolutions in the life of nations. The historian of science is concerned mostly with the invention of gunpowder. The historian of technology examines the development in the manufacture of explosives and weapons, and the way in which gunpowder has found applications in the peaceful arts. The military historian deals mainly with the use of gunpowder as an explosive and a propellant... and the development of firearms and their use in warfare. No recent book in English (or for that matter in any language) has attempted a concise survey of the subject."—from the Preface


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This publication popped up when I searched for Medeia's naphtha, Aieti//Aeetes, Kolkheti, Colchis. This book is extremely interesting and well written, full of scholarly information. It was very helpful to learn additional detailed data concerning Medeia ruler of Media//Medeia kingdom. Thanks to the author. Gratitude to persons that made it available to be read on-line, Before reading this book, I had a pleasure of reading a huge volume of Iohann Gotlieb Stritter's second volume of MEMORIAE POPULORUM, published in 1799; he mentioned Medeia's oil//Medeia's naphtha at p.25.
J. R. Partington in this book wrote that naphtha is a Persian word. May I inform modern readers that this word is older than the Persian language is. Naphtha is mentioned in the cuneiform inscriptions discovered near the Puranunu river ( the river called the Euphrates much later).
Dr. Natela Borisovna POPKHADZE.
Head of Scholarly Information at the National Academy Phassis in Tbilisi.
April 7, 2017

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About the author (1999)

James Riddick Partington was a distinguished historian of science and a professor of chemistry at the University of London. Bert S. Hall is an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and the author of Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics, also available from Johns Hopkins.

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