Thesis ID: CBB516048417

Philosophical Saltpeter: The Origins and Influence of Gunpowder Technology and the Paracelsian Aerial Niter (2019)


This thesis re-appraises how the creation and inclusion of niter theories and salt principles played into the reformation of early modern scientific philosophies, suggesting that the adoption of these theories by major figures of the period calls for closer attention by historians of science. In particular, it raises the question of why and how such a humble, earthly mineral took on a supernatural role and became a staple in some of the leading scientific philosophies of the early modern era. I show that salt, or more specifically saltpeter, would not have assumed this identity without the growing importance and popularity accorded to gunpowder weapons beginning in the Renaissance. It was the hermetic alchemist, Paracelsus, who first developed a metaphysical notion of saltpeter and incorporated it into his natural cosmology. Historians of science, such as Allen Debus, Walter Pagel, and Henry Guerlac, have discussed Paraclesus' first claim to treatment of niter theories and their association with the observed effects of gunpowder. However, I argue that additional evidence, found in Paracelsus' writings, is needed to further demonstrate this historical connection and to identify differences in the understanding of Paracelsus' conception and employment of salt as one of three principles of matter, alongside sulfur and mercury, together forming his celebrated tria prima. An examination of the parallel rise of gunpowder weapons and the utilization of saltpeter as their principle source of power showcases the philosophical links between science and emerging technologies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The transition of saltpeter from a primary component in a technological instrument to a conceptual manifestation of the fundamental structure of reality reflects an epistemological transfer of concepts from craft knowledge to metaphysical and philosophical beliefs. Such narratives may help us understand the development of early modern natural philosophers' beliefs about causality, agency, and creation.

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Authors & Contributors
Mendes Ferraz, Márcia H.
Cressy, David
Russell, Colin Archibald
Kaiserfeld, Thomas
Principe, Lawrence M.
Mauskopf, Seymour H.
Icon: Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology
Quimica Nova
Past and Present
Ambix: Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
The Minnesota Archaeologist
The Chemical Educator
Oxford University Press
Science History Publications
Georg Olms
Westview Press
Science and war; science and the military
Boerhaave, Herman
Boyle, Robert
Watson, Richard
Paracelsus, Theophrast von Hohenheim
Descartes, René
Le Sueur
Time Periods
18th century
17th century
19th century
Early modern
16th century
Great Britain
Cambridge University
Du Pont Company
Royal Society of London

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