Book Review: Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History


by Alfred W. Crosby

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 218. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $24.99 paper. ISBN: 0521156319

Making a useful contribution to the debate on the evolution of warfare and such ideas as the "Revolution in Military Affairs" is difficult, given the excellent recent works on these subjects.  Nevertheless, the recently re-issued Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History by Alfred Crosby, an environmental historian and emeritus professor at the University of Texas, provides a fresh alternative view.  Crosby's central thesis is that the ability to adopt and perfect projectile technology is a uniquely human characteristic which has distinguished humans from other animals and has driven historical change.

According to Crosby, this ability to accurately hit targets is a natural consequence of several features of human evolution such as long arms, flexible wrists, opposable thumbs, and a relatively large brain that relies primarily on visual signals for information.  These traits allowed early humans to hunt with rocks and spears and ultimately led them to devise a series of increasingly powerful tools to project force over distance, from the ancient atlatl to modern ballistic missiles, with stops along the way to look at gunpowder weapons (one chapter is titled "Brown Bess to Big Bertha"), the introduction of high technology, and alook at potential futures.  Crosby draws from a broad range of sources in such fields as evolutionary biology, history of science, world literature, sociology, and military history, and weaves them together with a crisp and quirky style.

Despite the many merits of this work it is not without its flaws.  First, the book is simply too short to do full justice to such a broad and contentious premise.  Second, the writing style is at times flippant and distracting.  Although it is refreshing to see an established scholar break from the tedious style of academia, given the seriousness of the subject matter one begins to question the wisdom of such an informal style or the inclusion of jokes by Tom Lehrer and others.  Third, there were a series of minor errors (e.g., footnote 26 on page 141 misdates John Keegan?s History of Warfare to 1933 rather than the correct 1993), which, while probably the result of poor editing, are distracting and may cause readers to question the validity of the broader research.

Overall, this is an impressive and thought provoking work, even though it falls well short of its ambitious goals.  With some revision and expansion, this book could be a must read for students across a wide range of disciplines.

Reviewer: J. Furman Daniel, III   

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