The Power of Gunpowder

Although Europe represents only about 8 percent of the planet’s landmass, from 1492 to 1914, Europeans conquered or colonized more than 80 percent of the entire world. Being dominated for centuries has led to lingering inequality and long-lasting effects, including poverty and slow economic growth, in many formerly colonized countries. There are many possible explanations for why history played out this way, but few can explain why the West was so powerful for so long.

Caltech’s Philip Hoffman, the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and professor of history, has a new explanation: the advancement of gunpowder technology. “In 1914, really only China, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire had escaped becoming European colonies,” says Hoffman. “A thousand years ago, no one would have ever expected that result, for at that point Western Europe was hopelessly backward. It was politically weak, it was poor, and the major long-distance commerce was a slave trade led by Vikings. The political  dominance of Western Europe was an unexpected outcome and had really big consequences, so I thought: Let’s explain it.” Hoffman’s work is published in a new book titled Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

“Gunpowder was really important for conquering territory; it allows a small number of people to exercise a lot of influence,” he says. Hoffman put together an economic model of how gunpowder technology has advanced to come up with what he thinks is the real reason why the West conquered almost everyone else. His idea incorporates the model of a contest or a tournament in which your odds of winning are higher if you spend more resources on fighting.

“If you think about it, you realize that advancements in gunpowder technology—which are important for conquest—arise where political leaders fight using that technology, where they spend huge sums on it, and where they’re able to share the resulting advances in that technology,” he says. “For example, if I am fighting you and you figure out a better way to build an armed ship, I can imitate you. For that to happen, the countries have to be small and close to one another. And all of this describes Europe.” —JSC