Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fireworks and the Fourth of July

What would the Fourth of July be without fireworks? It's only fitting that we celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, because fireworks are fueled by gunpowder, which has played a key role in encouraging the development of modern democracies. Indeed, the World History Encyclopedia asserts that "Gunpowder may be the most important discovery in world history" (Watts 668).

How can this be? In the Middle Ages, just a few armored knights on horses could defeat a large number of foot soldiers. Since a few could physically overpower many, the same few could exercise political power over many.

But this began to change during the Hundred Years War, in which English archers defeated French knights in several key battles, including the spectacular rout at Agincourt in 1415. Gunpowder hadn't yet played a specific role in these battles, but the defeats illustrated that commoners, such as English longbowmen, could defeat hitherto more powerful noblemen, such as mounted French knights, in battle (Agincourt).

Soon, gunpowder weapons made it even easier to level the playing field in battle, requiring less physical strength and training than longbows yet capable of piercing thicker armor (G. Phillips 580, 584, 589). This shift in military power helped lead to a shift in political power: If a ruler relied heavily on common soldiers, then these commoners could demand a greater say in things. As Isaac Asimov explains, "In time gunpowder helped destroy the medieval order of society by giving armies a means to level castle walls, and the man on foot a chance to shoot down a horseman in armor" (25).

Speaking of castle walls, gunpowder allowed the Ottomans to breach the mighty walls of Constantinople in 1453 using massive cannons (Islam). The Ottoman takeover of Constantinople impaired overland trade between East and West, spurring exploration for alternative routes--which in turn led to Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World (W. Phillips, Jr, and C. Phillips 47, 49-51).

Americans' independent spirit stems partially from the ready availability of land in this new world. With an open frontier, colonists dissatisfied with the settlement in which they lived could often push into the frontier and start their own settlement--not an option in crowded Europe. The independent mindset held by many American colonists contributed to the eventual revolt against Great Britain, heralded by the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 (Turner 30, 78-79).

So, as we enjoy spectacular Fourth of July fireworks displays, their smoke and loud explosions can remind us all the more of the origins of our nation's independence and democracy! The libraries at Austin Community College have abundant resources for exploring the many facets of a subject such as gunpowder. One could, for example, investigate its Chinese origins, its chemistry, its use in fireworks and mining, or its role in encouraging the development of industrial fertilizer production, and with it, the ability to feed an ever growing world population (Smil xv, 46-48). Here are a few such resources:
 

Circulating Materials (May Check Out)


"Potassium Nitrate" in The 100 Most Important Chemical Compounds
Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England 
The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific
      Discovery that Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler 
The Chemistry of Fireworks  
Chemistry of Pyrotechnics: Basic Principles and Theory
Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of
       World Food Production
"Saltpeter" in Fifty Minerals that Changed the Course of History 
Fireworks: The Art, Science, and Technique
Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History
The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, & Invention
Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: the History of the
       Explosive that Changed the World
A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World  
A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder
Master Mind: the Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who
       Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare
Saltpeter: the Mother of Gunpowder
The Story of N   


Online Sources  (You may need to log in if off campus)

The Chemistry of Fireworks (E-Book)
Chemistry of Pyrotechnics: Basic Principles and Theory (E-Book) 
Fourth of July (Article in Gale Virtual Reference Library)
Gunpowder (Article in Gale Virtual Reference Library)
Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: the History of the
       Explosive that Changed the World  (E-Book)
JSTOR -- database covering history, sociology, and many other subjects
Niter (Article in AccessScience)
Potassium Nitrate (Article in Gale Virtual Reference Library)


Streaming Videos from Films on Demand

Agincourt
Atacama  
Chemistry Lights Up Fireworks  
The Cycles: Water, Carbon, Nitrogen, Phosphorus
Explosions: How We Shook the World
Gunpowder: Quirky Science
Inside the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul
Islam: Empire of Faith--The Ottomans
People Power
War






Works Cited

Agincourt. Films On Demand. Films Media Group, 2005. Web. 25 June 2015. 

Asimov, Isaac. A Short History of Chemistry. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood

     Press, 1979. Print.

Islam: Empire of Faith—The Ottomans. Films On Demand. Films Media

     Group, 2001. Web. 25 June 2015.

Phillips, Gervase. "Longbow and Sackbutt: Weapons Technology and

     Technology Transfer in Early Modern England." Technology and Culture.

     40.3 (1999): 576-593. JSTOR. Web. 25 June 2015. 

Phillips, Jr., William D. and Carla R. Phillips.  The Worlds of Christopher 

     Columbus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Print.

Smil, Vaclav. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the 

     Transformation of World Food Production. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 

     2001. Print.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. Tucson:

     University of Arizona Press, 1986. Print.

Watts, Timothy J. "Gunpowder." World History Encyclopedia. Ed. Alfred J. 

     Andrea and Carolyn Neel. Vol. 8: Era 4: Expanding Regional

     Civilizations, 300-1000. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.

     668-669. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 25 June 2015.



No comments:

Post a Comment