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Distributed for Reaktion Books

Paths of Fire

The Gun and the World It Made

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Paths of Fire

The Gun and the World It Made

Type “Mikhail Kalashnikov” into Google and the biography of the inventor will come back to you almost at the speed of light. Squeeze the trigger of a Kalashnikov and a bullet is kicked up the barrel by an archaic chemical explosion that would have been quite familiar to Oliver Cromwell or General Custer. The gun—antique, yet contemporary—still dominates the world. Geopolitical events and even consumer culture have been molded by the often-unseen research that firearms evoked. The new science of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton owed much to the Renaissance study of ballistics. But research into making guns and aiming them also brought on the more recent invention of mass production and kickstarted the contemporary field of artificial intelligence. This book follows the history of the gun and its often-unsuspected wider linkages, looking from the first cannons to modern gunnery, and to the yet-to-be-realized electrical futures of rays and beams.

248 pages | 70 halftones | 6 3/4 x 8 3/4

History: General History, History of Technology

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"As Nahum shows, in this original exploration of how guns have shaped our societies in often surprising ways, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw 'the remorseless spread of arms and the multiplication of the firepower and lethality that can be wielded by an individual.' . . . Nahum recounts the stories of these weapons innovators with some panache. . . . As Nahum acknowledges, he has not written a 'conventional' book about guns and their effects on the world but he has written a very thought-provoking one."

Daily Mail

"Ancient yet contemporary, the gun has for centuries dominated the world in a myriad of ways and is woven into the fabric of human existence. People in fortunate countries are not often aware of this, according to Nahum, whose chronicle of the gun is an authoritative as well as original study of this invention and its impact on society and nations. . . . The book abounds with amusing anecdotes as well as revealing portraits of key figures in this often underrated milestone in human technological ingenuity." 

History of War

"Son of a gun! Nahum is no flash in the pan. But if I called him a hot shot, he would go ballistic. Indeed, the everyday prevalence of firearm metaphors reveals the deep resonance the gun has in culture. Nahum is a distinguished historian of science and technology, and he has written Paths of Fire with a nice combination of cool authority and gentle wit. It is a completely original study. Who cannot be engrossed by connecting Buffalo Bill to cybernetics, via Mikhail Kalashnikov?"

Stephen Bayley

"This is a brilliant book about guns which isn't about guns. Instead, it's about progress, intellectual and industrial, seen from a wholly original and convincing new perspective. Full of surprises, unexpected connections, and portraits of remarkable figures from our recent history, I can recommend it without reservation."

Andrew Marr


Type ‘Mikhail Kalashnikov’ into an Internet search engine like Google and the biography of the inventor comes back to you from secretive server sites in Oregon or Virginia in a blink, winging down optical fibres at the speed of light, or even along some old-style electrical phone cable, but still covering almost 200,000 km an hour (124,000 mph).

Squeeze the trigger of a Kalashnikov, and a bullet weighing about a quarter of an ounce is kicked up the barrel at a trivial fraction of that speed, propelled by a chemical bang that would have been quite familiar to Oliver Cromwell or General Custer. Modernity, in the everyday sense, is not evenly distributed. Ancient inventions, like the gun, are often still as prevalent, and as effective in their own domains, as those embodying the latest science.

Antique, yet contemporary, the gun dominates the world in obvious ways and is woven into the fabric of life, even though people in fortunate countries do not see them very often. But the influence of guns extends even beyond war, revolution and death, and this is not a conventional book about them. Nor is it about the gun lobby or the profound effects that firearms have on national affairs and on civil society.

Neither is it a synoptic history. There is no seamless arc, for example, from muskets to Kalashnikovs, or from the Renaissance cannon to the immense naval guns that could strike from 16 km (10 mi.) at Jutland – although these things are all here.

Rather, this is a series of snapshots, showing how guns and gunnery have influenced our world and our culture in unsuspected, surprising ways. The flight of the cannon ball, for instance, helped overturn ancient theories of motion, inherited from the Greeks and clung to by the Catholic Church, for it was the study of ballistics, as well as the study of the heavens, that helped underpin the new science of Galileo and Newton. In spite of theology, here was an analysis that was seen to be genuinely useful by the most powerful actors in the emerging scientific world.

In the Second World War, predicting and calculating the aim of anti-aircraft batteries required the creation of small reactive ‘on board’ computers, a development which points to a different history of computing and not the familiar one based on vast static mainframe machines. It is an alternative story because these new devices opened the path to artificial intelligence, to robotics, and even to the way in which we make sense of our own consciousness and powers of action today.

In another sphere, gun making refined the techniques and set the style for modern manufacture – the systems that now produce so much stuff for us, so accurately and so cheaply.

Firearms – and not just battles – have also moulded political and international structures in intricate and surprising ways. Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme precipitated the end of the Cold War and also, perhaps, the end of the apparently impermeable Soviet empire. But at the heart of Reagan’s sally was an ultimately idealized gun – Edward Teller’s X-ray laser – which existed only as a mythic weapon, an unrealized design that will, perhaps, never be made. Yet this promised ray gun proved to be an immensely effective lever during the years of the Reagan–Gorbachev diplomacy and provoked a seismic geopolitical shift. Its power was that it seemed to promise a ‘nuclear umbrella’, a robust new American defence against incoming missiles that would end the balance of nuclear terror.

It is a truism that arms development has an enormous and continuing effect on technological development and on social change. But the histories here show that this effect occurs not just in the familiar ways we know, but often by elliptical and surprising routes. The events here reflect these unexpected linkages. These are the less-considered tributaries of arms development, which also link to the broader, more generous and more surprising history of technology that has begun to emerge in recent years. These are episodes crammed with lesser known cross-connections, with individuals, and with contingencies that reveal an unsuspected undertow to the conventional and established tide of historical events.

Chapter One: The Geometry of War

In 1931 a high-powered Soviet delegation attended the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held that year at the Science Museum in London. The members even arrived by aeroplane, then an emphatic statement of importance, and it has become a notable event for the history of science. It was, one historian commented, a ‘Soviet road show’ since, instead of just the one speaker the conference expected, ‘a small battalion’ (actually eight delegates) arrived, led by Nikolai Bukharin, once a close associate of Lenin. It was impossible to fit in papers from all the delegates but they were mollified by being given time for two papers and the publication of all the contributions at lightning speed – an editorial marathon ‘Five Day Plan’ based at the Soviet Embassy that resulted in the influential small volume Science at the Crossroads.

By far the most influential contribution to both the spoken session and the book, however, came from a comparatively little-known Soviet philosopher and physicist, Boris Hessen, with his paper ‘The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia’, which located Newton’s ‘pure’ science firmly in the social milieu of its times and even in contemporary industrial and military events.

The paper, according to one reading, was written ‘with an eye to saving [Hessen’s] career (and possibly his neck)’, since it was delivered in the presence of Ernst Kolman, ‘arguably the most savage of Stalin’s intellectual cheerleaders’, the delegate who had been assigned to the group by the Politburo and charged with reporting on the political behaviour of the ideologically suspect members Bukharin and Hessen.

Hessen’s talk, the most startling and influential of the session, was an explicit attack on the notion of pure science and on the role of personal genius, taking Isaac Newton as the case study, asking ‘where is the source of Newton’s genius? . . . What determined the content and direction of his work?’ And he teed up his analysis by quoting, parodically, Alexander Pope’s epitaph: ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.’

Hessen announced that he would apply dialectical materialism and Marx’s conception of the historical process to the phenomenon of Newton’s work. In British scientific tradition, and even within the then relatively immature study of the history of science, it was conventional, certainly, to assign the phenomenon of Newton and his work to the ‘benevolence of divine providence’, or at least to a rare and exceptional chance that brought forth his personal genius. Simon Schaffer, in his paper ‘Newton at the Crossroads’, has pointed out that here Hessen is drawing on arguments from Engels, as in his 1894 letter insisting that:
science depends far more on the state . . . and the requirements of technique . . . If society has a technical need, that helps science forward more than ten universities. The whole of hydrostatics (Torricelli etc.) was called forth by the necessity for regulating mountain streams of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries . . . But unfortunately, it has become the custom to write the history of the sciences as if they had fallen from the skies.

But in Hessen’s materialist reading, economic circumstances and the methods of production condition the ‘social, political and intellectual life processes of society’. ‘The ideas of the ruling class are, in every historical age, the ruling ideas’. Furthermore, ‘the ruling class subjects . . . all other classes to its interests,’ and Hessen rattled off a list of practical problems of the day including canal-building, ship stability, mechanical hoists and pulleys for mines, cogwheels and transmission mechanisms for mills, and a host of techno-scientific problems.

Newton’s physics, therefore, was based on the ideology of the ruling class in the seventeenth century and the emergent English bourgeoisie. The period at which Newton was at the peak of his activity, noted Hessen, coincided with the English Civil War and the Commonwealth and so he set out a brief history of ballistics, essentially the problem of aiming cannon at a distance and the influence of various scientists on the art.

Furthermore, the rising mercantile and manufacturing bourgeoisie brought ‘natural science into its service, into the service of the developing productive forces’ and, as further evidence of Newton’s practicality and the instrumental service he, in effect, provided to these classes, Hessen quoted Newton’s letter to his friend Francis Aston, who had asked for advice on what he should investigate on his European tour in order ‘to utilise his journey most rationally’.

Newton had a long list. Aston should study methods of steering and navigating ships, carefully survey ‘all the fortresses he should happen upon, their method of construction, their poweres of resistance’, study methods of obtaining metals from ores, find out if it was true that ‘in Hungary, Slovakia and Bohemia, near the town of Eila . . . there were rivers whose waters contained gold,’ to find out how the Dutch protected their vessels from worm and whether clocks were any use in determining longitude. He must visit a newly established glasspolishing factory in Holland (presumably for lenses). He also added a considerable section on investigating whether the art of transmuting one metal into another existed in those places.

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