Bookshelf / A Most Damnable Invention

A Most Damnable Invention

Dynamite, nitrates and the making of the modern world


"Bown follows his well-received Scurvy with another sedulously researched and well-written popular history. He's particularly good at penning provocative theories that link seemingly modest events to monumental changes in the course of history. For example, prior to the Franco-Prussian War, the French government, unlike Prussia, refused to allow its munitions experts to develop weaponry utilizing Alfred Nobel's powerful new explosive, dynamite. The result, according to Bown, was a humiliating defeat that forced the French to submit to onerous treaty terms that helped set the stage for WWI. Bown's knowledge of his subject is impressive, and he has interesting things to say about the science and scientists central to the development of explosives; the role these explosives played in Japan, China and India; and positive changes facilitated by the use of high explosives in mining and construction. Bown also has a good eye for the unintended consequences, ironies and contradictions that are the product of social and technological force of great magnitude. That Alfred Nobel used the proceeds of his vast munitions fortune to fund the Nobel Prizes is perhaps the ultimate example."

– Publisher's Weekly

"Canadian writer Bown explores some of history's dustiest galleries to marshal personalities and events that, having changed the world, have been largely forgotten. . . . The author ventures through the ebb and flow of nitrate commerce as the vast, (literally) stinking "guano island" deposits off the Chilean coast become, essentially, the Saudi Arabia of a 19th century world in need of both nitrogen-based fertilizers and yet more gunpowder. . . . Bown effectively revisits the geopolitical intrigues that accrued around a now forgotten commodity."

– Kirkus Reviews

"It would seem hard to imagine a thrilling must-be-read-at-one-sitting page-turner in which the main elements of the story involve compost, bird droppings and chemical reactions. Yet this is exactly what Stephen R. Bown has achieved in "A Most Damnable Invention," a fast paced, gripping narrative in which these elements play major roles in the invention and development of explosives."

– The Washington Times

"Stephen Bown is starting to make a habit of uncovering little known nuggets of historical fact and weaving them into amazing stories that marry biography and science to show how one seemingly simple event can change the entire course of world history. . . . The tale is a fascinating one."

– Rocky Mountain Outlook

"With the expertise of a skilled storyteller, Bown once again provides an exciting work of popular history, this time all about nitrate, nitroglycerin, and dynamite. . . . Recommended for academic and public libraries of all size."

– Library Journal

"This excellent addition to the history of science, military history, and the history of human progress as one of accidents and good intentions deserves a much bigger audience than its focus might lead one to expect. Vivid science writing on a compelling topic."
Vivid science writing on a compelling topic; for reports or personal interest."


"This is a totally enjoyable book that any history buff must read."

– Roanoke Times

"This is the fascinating and comprehensive tale of the key ingredient of gunpowder and dynamite - nitrate - and the enduring quest and globe-spanning struggle to control this valuable natural resource. The author writes with grace and authority."

– Tucson Citizen

"The story of how explosives changed the world is a gripping tale of the development of science, the world’s militaries, industry and infrastructure. And Stephen Bown’s version comes complete with intriguing characters, expert storytelling and impressive research."

– Canadian Geographic Magazine

"No understanding of warfare or civilization's advancement would be complete without A Most Damnable Invention in hand."

– California Bookwatch, March 2006

"Gunpowder And Poison Gas. Bown, a talented writer living in Alberta, Canada, shows how the inventions of dynamite and poison gas has changed mankind’s progress in the 20th century."

– Fifteen Minutes Magazine

"What Stephen R. Bown does in this entertaining book is reveal the long historical road and complex infrastructure that led to the emphatic exclamation mark of modern explosives. . . . an enjoyable and informative read."

– The Historian