The civil uses of gunpowder: demolishing, quarrying, and mining (15th-18th centuries). A reappraisal
By Raffaello Vergani
Questo testo in inglese (giugno 2009) aggiorna, con qualche aggiunta, un testo già apparso in lingua italiana in “Economia ed Energia. Secc. XIII-XVIII. Atti della XXXIV Settimana di Studi dell’Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica F. Datini” (Prato, 15-19 Aprile 2002)
Introduction: With his usual sense of humour, Carlo M. Cipolla, in his successful volume on economic history of Europe, devoted a section to what he calls “negative production”: that is, the use of capital and labour not to create but to destroy wealth and human lives. His choice of examples is extensive, from single murderers to armed bands, from terrorism to warfare; in the latter, he notes, capital consisted of cannons and the labour of soldiers. There is little doubt that, in the course of time from the 14th to the 18th centuries, most of the energy deriving from black powder was used for negative production. Even authors such as André Varagnac, who place the advent of explosives among the great energy revolutions in the history of man, only examined the cultural, social, institutional and political transformations resulting from the military use of gunpowder, but nothing else.
In this work, instead, we consider the directly productive uses of black powder – which were certainly minor, especially initially – but which gradually increased, in absolute if not in relative terms, with the approach of the 19th century. The chemical energy liberated by black powder – a very rapid form of combustion, with the more or less instantaneous generation of large quantities of gas and thus of very high pressures – has long been historically exploited in two directions: either as a propulsive force – the case of firearms – or as a purely destructive one, for blasting purposes. The civil and productive uses are a development, or rather a disciplining, of the latter application. Clearly, the demolition of a wall or a building did not necessarily fall within military or civil scope; it depended on the objective of the moment. The first idea of blasting – not the true invention (we do not know if it was actually put into practice) – appears in 1403, when a Florentine engineer pondered on how to open a breach in the walls of Pisa by exploding a charge of black powder inside an old walled-up gate. His objective, in this case, was military. Perhaps as early as 1409 (the date is very uncertain), blasting was used to demolish the walls of the convent at Chablis (near Auxerre, in Burgundy) to recover stone for building. In this case, the aim was productive.
It must be noted that many of the first records of blasting, especially in the 15th century but also occasionally in the 16th, remain dubious. In the case of blasting for military use, the sources do not always distinguish truly explosive mixtures from the incendiary ones which had been used since ancient times in warfare. In addition, in both fields of application, military or civil, there is often confusion between blasting and fire-setting (mise-à-feu, Feuersetze, lavoro a fuoco), a well-known technique which had been practised for thousands of years in quarrying, mining, and other spheres of activity.