The invention of Gunpowder is truly one of the most remarkable throughout History. It was invented in China during the Tang Dynasty, circa 850 AD. It was a remarkable discovery as it was discovered by an unnamed Chinese alchemist who mixed seventy-five parts of saltpetre with fifteen parts of charcoal and ten parts sulphur. When the concoction was close to a lit flame it exploded. The unnamed inventor was practising alchemy- a medieval precursor for chemistry, whereby they attempted to find the elixir of life.

The origins of the ingredients are as follows- Charcoal is an impure form of carbon that contains some left over ash and sulphur is an element, like Charcoal had been known for many years preceding the invention of gunpowder. Saltpetre has been known to China as it can be found in some of the region’s soil. A Chinese Pharmacist described it as:

‘It is a ‘ground frost’, an efflorescence of the soil. It occurs among mountains and marshes, and in winter months it looks like frost on the ground. People sweep it up, collect it and dissolve it in water, after which they boil it to evaporate it. The crystals look like the pins of a hair-ornament. Good ones can be about half an inch (12.5mm) in length.’[1]


However when gunpowder was first developed it was not associated with weaponry as it could not be used as an effective explosive. It can however mimic an explosive when a large amount of saltpetre is added to the concoction. Through trial and error the Chinese were able to get enough information about the how gunpowder could be used as a weapon. A few hundred years after 900 AD gunpowder gradually became a part of weaponry. Firstly gunpowder was added to mixtures that were launched from trebuchets and catapults. What’s more the Chinese used them to light arrows in order to make the attack more effective in warfare. Secondly the Chinese advanced even further to use gunpowder as the main element to light up flamethrowers for battle in order to make the development of warfare safer as it avoided keeping the fluid under pressure as beforehand fire oil was used. The next stage of development saw the first attempt at utilising the explosive power of gunpowder, in other words a bomb was created using gunpowder. Eventually Chinese technicians were able to effectively create materials that would contain the explosion from gunpowder. This allowed the Chinese to make the hand-held gun and the canon. In the years after 969 gunpowder weapons were successfully used against enemies like Nun Thang.

As we move into the next century in 1040 AD there are many accounts of the Chinese using gunpowder whip arrows and even used animals to carry gunpowder. To do this warriors would apply the gunpowder around the necks of birds, hoping that they will settle down on to enemy territory. By the time the eleventh century arrived the Chinese developed gunpowder even further for weaponry. They began to use Fire lances. The Fire lance was a sophisticated use of weaponry, whereby soldiers would have a small iron fire-box attached to their belt that was lit up through a tube, ready to be fired at the enemy. It was a very versatile weapon as fire power could be used from the gunpowder and when it ran out the weapon could be used as a regular spear.  The design was particularly simple yet innovative as the Chinese used sixteen layers of paper that were rolled up and tied to cords at the end of each spear, allowing the flames to shoot out at a range of 3.6 metres.

The use of Fire-lances were pivotal for the military use of gunpowder as it more often than not caused enemies to be frightened due to the loud bang that gunpowder produced. This therefore inadvertently created psychological warfare as many men and horses would have been startled by it unlike other weapons such as swords and spears which could only frighten at close range. Gunpowder was able to startle the enemy when at further range.

In naval warfare the Chinese developed from the Fire-lances, ‘thunderclap bombs’. Thunderclap bombs proved to be very useful as it was able to treat gunpowder as a true explosive. The bombs when fired met the water and the noise that erupted mimicked thunder, whilst the sulphur in the gunpowder turned into flames. An example of this happening occurred in 1161 at the battle of Tshai-shih. The Chinese fleet was led by Yu Yun-Wen against the Jurchens, who attempted to seize the south of China. Fortunately the thunder bomb aided in the Chinese victory as the smoke emitted from the bomb blinded the men on board as well as the initial bomb causing many casualties.

After the Mongols were overthrown from the mid fourteenth century by the Ming Dynasty bomb development in China continued. Light-casing bombs were then established during this era and like its predecessors the bomb contained a much-needed addition in order to aid with warfare-a type of napalm. The ingredients to this concoction were unpleasant as when the bomb exploded iron spikes flew out with a poison contained in the gunpowder. This caused intense swelling and burns. Although it is unknown what the actual poison contained, however it can be assumed a poisonous plant might have been responsible.

When the Chinese used gunpowder with a high-saltpetre content the possibilities of gunpowder seemed more and more effective in warfare. Due to the high-saltpetre content the bomb needed metal casing as the explosions permitted more damage. Eventually from this large bombs could be made to defend territory. In 1250 mines were used by the Chinese. The first mine was not very effective as it detonated by a long fuse, thus making it highly unreliable. In 1300 however the Chinese managed to find a way to rectify the issue. They were able to create a hidden mechanism that allowed a weight to spin a wheel over flints that triggered the fuse when the enemy arrived. It was the fuse that the Chinese technicians figured out could connect to all the mines, allowing them to explode.

It was from these early Chinese designs that gunpowder was developed through circa 850 to the mid fourteenth century as affective weaponry for arrows, lances, bombs and mines. It was from these initial designs that the rocket and guns came about and can be argued that its origins can be traced back through to the days of alchemy- finding the elixir of life and quite ironically so it can be argued that gunpowder is the elixir of death? So before you mimic the famous words of the fifth of November rhyme please do also remember the origins of gunpowder and its use as a lethal weapon.

[1] Unknown author, ‘Gunpowder’ in Clive Ponting, ‘Gunpowder’ (London, 2005), 16.


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