When gunpowder was invented

Invention of the most popular explosive

Ini­tial­ly, smoky or black pow­der was the name giv­en to a sub­stance con­sist­ing of a mix­ture of coal, sul­fur and potas­si­um ni­trate in the pro­por­tions of 3:2:15. This hard, mul­ti-com­po­nent ex­plo­sive sub­stance burns with­out the pres­ence of oxy­gen. As a re­sult of this re­ac­tion, gaseous prod­ucts are formed, which are pow­er­ful enough to fire shells and pro­jec­tiles.

The ori­gin of gun­pow­der

It is be­lieved that gun­pow­der was in­vent­ed in Chi­na in the 7th cen­tu­ry. It’s im­pos­si­ble to give a pre­cise date, as there are no of­fi­cial records to con­firm this the­o­ry. Some sci­en­tists be­lieve that gun­pow­der was used by the an­cient In­di­ans as ear­ly as 1,500 years BCE, but there is no ev­i­dence to sup­port this. A re­li­able the­o­ry states that the Chi­nese in­vent­ed gun­pow­der. Ini­tial­ly, ni­trate was used in medicine – an­cient ori­en­tal doc­tors mixed this sub­stance with hon­ey and burn it to make “heal­ing smoke”. Who was first to com­bine the three com­po­nents to make gun­pow­der? Per­haps it was the Daosi – mem­bers of a re­li­gious move­ment who tried to make a “pills of im­mor­tal­i­ty”.

The part played by alche­my

Ac­cord­ing to an­oth­er the­o­ry, the Chi­nese al­chemist Sun Simiao in­vent­ed gun­pow­der. He once man­u­fac­tured a mix­ture of ni­trate and sul­fur, then added wood­chips from a lo­cust tree. When the re­sult­ing mix­ture was burnt on a stove, a pow­er­ful flash re­sem­bling an ex­plo­sion took place. This re­ac­tion fas­ci­nat­ed the al­chemist, and he be­gan to study it. The first spec­i­men of gun­pow­der made by the Chi­nese sci­en­tist did not have the nec­es­sary ex­plo­sive force. Fol­low­ers of the al­chemist con­stant­ly im­proved the recipe by ex­per­i­ments, un­til they dis­cov­ered its three com­po­nents – sul­fur, coal and potas­si­um ni­trate.

The ap­pli­ca­tion of gun­pow­der

As soon as the en­ter­pris­ing Chi­nese re­al­ized that the black pow­der they had made gave off smoke, ex­plod­ed and burnt ev­ery­thing around it, they thought about ways to use it. In this way, they in­vent­ed the fa­vorite toy of the Chi­nese peo­ple – fire­works. Lat­er they be­gan to use gun­pow­der in weapon­ry, mak­ing ex­plo­sive shells from it.

An 18th-century illustration of Chinese fireworks [Wikipedia]

To make fire­works, peo­ple took bam­boo sticks and filled them with pow­der (click here to find out how to make a safe fire­work at home). Then they point­ed the sticks at the sky and set fire to them. The first bombs made us­ing “black pow­der” were called “pi li huo qu”, which is Chi­nese for “fiery ball mak­ing the noise of thun­der”. These prim­i­tive shells were placed in a cat­a­pult, then set alight and fired at the en­e­my.

Equiv­a­lents of gun­pow­der

In the Byzan­tine Em­pire, “Greek fire” was used, an equiv­a­lent of gun­pow­der. It was made with oil in­stead of coal. The pre­cise com­po­si­tion of this sub­stance is un­known, but sci­en­tists be­lieve that there was no ni­trate in it. This means that the “Greek fire” could not burn with­out oxy­gen. But de­spite this, with this sub­stance the Byzan­tines were able to de­stroy Arab ships that be­sieged Con­stantino­ple.

A Byzantine ship uses Greek fire against a ship of the rebel [Wikipedia]

Undis­cov­ered prop­er­ties

The Chi­nese, hav­ing in­vent­ed gun­pow­der, did not sus­pect that the pow­er of gas could be used to fire a shell, in­creas­ing its speed and range by many times. Eu­ro­peans came up with this idea in the 14th cen­tu­ry. The Fran­cis­can monk Berthold Schwarz was grind­ing a mix­ture of pow­der in a mor­tar when a spark came into con­tact with the pow­der, caus­ing an ex­plo­sion. The me­dieval al­chemist then be­gan to study the prop­er­ties of the black pow­der in de­tail, and even wrote a trea­tise on it.

The prop­er­ties of gun­pow­der were lat­er de­scribed by an­oth­er monk and in­ven­tor by the name of Roger Ba­con. The sci­en­tist made a pre­cise recipe of the sub­stance, and for a long time kept it se­cret, not al­low­ing it to leave the monk­hood. The cler­gy be­lieved that as soon as the method of mak­ing gun­pow­der be­came known to un­e­d­u­cat­ed peo­ple, they would use the recipe to make weapons.

Un­locked po­ten­tial

De­spite these pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures, weapon mak­ers fi­nal­ly dis­cov­ered the se­cret of gun­pow­der. They con­stant­ly im­proved the recipe, but made a break­through in the late 19th-ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, when smoke­less gun­pow­der was in­vent­ed.

Smokeless powder [Wikipedia]

Soon sci­en­tists in­vent­ed sol­id rock­et fuel – a type of pow­der with­out which rock­etry would have been im­pos­si­ble.