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Fire oxen
Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese. According to one account it was first cooked up in the A.D. 9th century by Taoist alchemists who were trying to find a compound to make people live forever and mixed honey, saltpeter, charcoal, and sulphur. The Chinese word for gunpowder means “fire medicine.”According to another account gunpowder was invented in the 10th century by a cook who mixed sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter. It is not known what he was attempting to make. Gunpowder was also used to flavor preserved meat.

Earlier alchemists discovered that charcoal fires built on soil with a high sulfur content produced an explosive effect. In the 10th century the Chinese found that petroleum (from tar pits) mixed with saltpeter produced a more powerful explosive.

Heather Whipps wrote in Live Science, “Ironically, it was a quest for immortality that led to the invention of the deadliest weapon before the arrival of the atomic bomb. Experimenting with life-lengthening elixirs around A.D. 850, Chinese alchemists instead discovered gunpowder. [Source: Heather Whipps, Live Science, April 6, 2008 ***]

“Chinese scientists had been playing with saltpeter — a common name for the powerful oxidizing agent potassium nitrate — in medical compounds for centuries when one industrious individual thought to mix it with sulfur and charcoal. The result was a mysterious powder from which, observers remarked in a text dated from the mid-9th century, "smoke and flames result, so that [the scientists'] hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down." ***

“Gunpowder was quickly put to use by the reigning Sung dynasty against the Mongols, whose constant invasions into the country plagued the Chinese throughout the period. The Mongols were the first to be subject to flying fire — an arrow fixed with a tube of gunpowder that ignited and would propel itself across enemy lines. More gunpowder-based weapons were invented by the Chinese and perfected against the Mongols in the next centuries, including the first cannons and grenades. The psychological effect alone of the mystifying new technology likely helped the Chinese win battles against the Mongols, historians believe.”***

Origins of Gunpowder

Frank Winter, former curator of rockets at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, wrote: “Gunpowder was discovered in China by Taoist alchemists, or religious philosophers who were employed by the emperor to search for an “elixir of longevity.” Needham and his colleagues found early accounts of the haphazard practice of the Taoist alchemists in which they occasionally had their beards singed, hands and faces burnt, and even the houses where they worked burned down when they ignited certain mixtures. These accidents suggest that, in their pursuit of life-prolonging medicines, they eventually stumbled upon the explosive concoction of gunpowder unintentionally. [Source: Frank Winter, Space History Department, Smithsonian, July 3, 2013]

“For hundreds of years, and well into the 17th century, the traditional Chinese Taoist alchemical interpretation of the explosive property of gunpowder was regarded as the interaction of yin (female) and yang (male) values, a belief entirely in accord with the principles and practice of Taoism. Based upon this philosophy, it seems highly improbable that the essential ingredients of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal were deliberately brought together as a planned invention to form gunpowder, since the true chemical reaction of these ingredients upon ignition was hardly predictable.

“Similarly, it was highly unlikely that the early Chinese “invented” the rocket from well-founded scientific principles. Rather, the ancient Chinese alchemists (by the 11th century), seeking an elixir for longevity, very likely “witnessed” the accidental discovery of the explosion of a proto-gunpowder. After continuous trial-and-error experiments, possibly over centuries, these alchemists arrived at true gunpowder and these empirical experiments may have further led to the accidental discovery of the rocket, perhaps when gunpowder was placed in a container, with one end closed: when accidentally lit, the container unexpectedly flew off by itself, due to what we would today explain as Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.”

“Nonetheless, the Chinese continued their empirical experimentation, once the basic rocket had been “found” and were able to improve upon them, as well as upon fireworks and gunpowder weapons that eventually led to guns. The rocket also evolved thereafter in a purely empirical way, as did virtually all technologies before the Scientific Revolution began to produce an effective theory that could be applied to the process of invention. As for the Taoist alchemists, the elusive elixir of longevity was never found, but their work lives on in multiple ways. For those who are shooting off fireworks this Fourth of July or just watching them on television via a satellite that was placed into orbit by a modern rocket, their accidental discovery endures today.”

History of Gunpowder in China

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Though little is known about the early history of gunpowder, there is enough to show that it, too, is almost certainly Chinese in origin. As early as the T'ang dynasty (A.D. 618-906) there seem to have existed what were called "fire trees" and "silver flowers." These were apparently fireworks made with something like gunpowder. Later, in the years 1161 and 1162, when the Chinese were suffering invasion from the Chin Tatars to the north, the history of the time states that they successfully used explosives to defeat their attackers. This seems to be definite proof of a knowledge of gunpowder among the Chinese at this period. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“There has been considerable argument, however, as to whether these and later references to explosives indicate that the Chinese knew the use of actual cannon as well as of gunpowder. We read in the Chinese records that when the Mongols laid siege to the North China city of Kaifeng in 1232, the people within the city terrified the Mongols by means of a "heaven quaking thunderer". This instrument is described as an iron tube or vessel that was filled with a powder or drug, that is, with gunpowder. Some people think the "thunderer" was a real cannon. In all probability, however, it was really nothing more than some kind of metal bomb which, filled with gunpowder, was hurled by the defenders at the attacking Mongols. /=/

“Only a few decades after this time the Mongols completed their conquest of the greatest land empire ever known to man. It included not only all of China, but also most of the rest of Asia and Eastern Europe as far west as Poland and Hungary. Because this empire existed, it was possible for Europeans like Marco Polo to travel freely to the Far East, and for the new things observed there to be brought by them to Europe. It seems highly probable, although not absolutely proved, that gunpowder was among the products which were thus introduced to Europe. /=/

“If, however, what has been said above is correct, the use of gunpowder for cannon is an independent development made in Europe. There cannon are referred to in Italy, France, England, and other countries from about 1330 onward. The appearance of cannon later on in China itself may well be an instance of how an invention, originating in one country, is sometimes transferred to another, there improved upon, and then reintroduced into the land of its origin. In any case, the Chinese themselves, despite a familiarity with cannon extending over the past several centuries, have rarely made great use of them until recent times. Their knowledge of gunpowder, for the most part, has been applied to the peaceful art of making fireworks and firecrackers, an art in which they are still supreme

Early Fireworks and Bombs in China

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Early bronze gun from 1332
By the 11th century the Chinese were using gunpowder to make fireworks. They discovered that when explosives was placed in a bamboo tube with an object and lit, the object would go flying out. If gunpowder was packed in the object it would fly upwards and explode.

Simon Werrett wrote in the Washington Post: “Fireworks, as everyone knows, were invented in ancient China. The details of their actual origin are lost to history, but they were probably developed as a way to keep mountain men and spirits at bay using loud bangs. Dried bamboo stalks would emit a noisy crack when thrown on a fire, and gunpowder, another Chinese invention, rammed into bamboo may have first been used to magnify this startling effect. “By the 11th century there were gunpowder weapons in China and in the early 12th century, the Chinese used firecrackers and fireworks (yen huo) to celebrate a visit of the Chinese emperor. Chinese fireworks included rockets (or “earth rats” because they were fired over the ground) and wheels, coloured smoke-balls, crackers and fireworks attached to kites. They all made a “glorious noise”.”[Source: Simon Werrett, Washington Post, December 31, 2014. Werrett is a senior lecturer in science and technology studies at University College London ==]

By 1100 the Chinese were using huge firecracker-like paper bombs in battle. There were reports of catapults being used to launch explosives in 1221. Bombs from this era found off Japan contained some shrapnel. By the end of the 13th century the Chinese were experimenting with the first canons. In 1398, gunpowder weapons were used to expel the Mongols. In the 16th century Chinese used rock bombs made from pieces of stone fitted together and packed 70 percent full of gunpowder and sealed with mud. These were tossed off fortifications and the Great Wall at attackers.

But despite these advances it was the Europeans not the Chinese who learned how to fully exploit gunpowder and other explosives in weapons. The Chinese used gunpowder primarily in fireworks. Fireworks were mainly used at parties, weddings and other events for entertainment. Today they are lit off at Chinese New Year for fun and to ward off evil spirits.

Origins of Rockets

The first known use of a military rocket was in 1232 when the Chinese used fei huo tsiang (flying fire lances) against Mongols attacking the city of Kai-fung-fu. The first devise to meet the criterion for a rocket was not an aerial projectile but a firework, called ti lao shu (ground rat), made from a bamboo tube filled with gunpowder that propelled it in all directions on the ground. According to Smithsonian magazine: “The device first appeared in the late 12th century and was described in a book titled Ch’in yeh-yu (Rustic Tales in Eastern Ch’i). During a royal banquet in the 13th century, the wife of Emperor Li Chung was terrified when a ground rat scurried beneath her chair. The festivities abruptly ended and those responsible for the firework display were imprisoned. “Winter and his colleagues believe that Taoist alchemists had discovered the recipe for gunpowder while searching for nothing less than the formula for immortality.” [Source: Jimmy Stamp, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013]

Frank Winter, former curator of rockets at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, wrote: The basic rocket, a gunpowder-propelled device developed in China around 900 years ago, suggests that it originated as an accidental discovery rather than as a deliberately planned invention. Although we still do not know who first made the rocket, nor when nor how it was devised, there has been a long-held and commonly accepted belief that it originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). [Source: Frank Winter, Space History Department, Smithsonian, July 3, 2013]

“In determining the earliest reference to rocket devices in Chinese (or other) sources, investigators must be cautious in correctly interpreting early Chinese terminology, which can be ambiguous, or refer to changing technologies over time. The use of “fei huo tsiang” by the Chinese against the Mongols during the siege of Kai-fung-fu in 1232 is often cited by historians as the first appearance of the rocket or, more particularly, the ”war rocket.“ But fie huo tsiang literally means “flying fire lances” and could have been no more than hand-thrown lances or spears with burning heads. To identify a true rocket-propelled device in the early texts, it must be unequivocally described as operating solely by self-propulsion. The question therefore has to be: Is the device clearly described as flying or moving by itself, either in the air or on the ground, without any assistance from a man or another device (like a bow or throwing stick)? Self-propulsion should be the only rigidly held criterion.

“Using this standard, it is likely that the first rockets were not used in war, but rather as a form of entertainment. Descriptions of a simple type of firework are found in the Ch’in yeh-yu (Rustic Tales in Eastern Ch’i) by Zhou Mi, dated to 1264. Called “ground rat” (ti lao shu) or “earth rat,” the device described is a self-propelled, ground-crawling firework. It was simply a tube, “probably of bamboo, filled with gunpowder and having a small orifice through which the gases could escape; then when lit, it shot about in all directions on the floor at firework displays.” According to Dr. Joseph Needham, author of Science & Civilization in China, The “ground rat” type of firework “may well have been the origin of rocket propulsion.”

How Gunpowder Changed the World

Heather Whipps wrote in Live Science, Gunpowder became the basis for almost every weapon used in war from that point on, from fiery arrows to rifles, cannons and grenades. Gunpowder made warfare all over the world very different, affecting the way battles were fought and borders were drawn throughout the Middle Ages. [Source: Heather Whipps, Live Science, April 06, 2008 ***]

“Gunpowder somehow remained a monopoly of the Chinese until the 13th century, when the science was passed along the ancient silk trade route to Europe and the Islamic world, where it became a deciding factor in many Middle Age skirmishes. By 1350, rudimentary gunpowder cannons were commonplace in the English and French militaries, which used the technology against each other during the Hundred Years' War. The Ottoman Turks also employed gunpowder cannons with abandon during their successful siege of Constantinople in 1453. The powerful new weapon essentially rendered the traditional walled fortification of Europe, impregnable for centuries, weak and defenseless. ***

“The next important step for gunpowder came when it was inserted into the barrel of a handgun, which first appeared in the mid-15th century and was essentially a cannon shrunk down to portable size. Guns literally put weaponry into the hands of the individual, creating a new class of soldier — infantry — and giving birth to the modern army. Gunpowder is still the basis for many modern weapons, including guns, though it's certainly no longer the most explosive force available to armies. ***

“Need to celebrate a victory in battle, though? Gunpowder is there for you. The powder is also at the heart of the fireworks that make the Fourth of July and other holidays so special. To produce the aerial spray of reds, golds and blues, pyrotechnicians pack a tube with gunpowder, colorizing chemicals and small pellets that create the shape and shimmer of the firework.” ***

Image Sources: 1) Compass, Pandaamerica; 2) Fire oxen, University of Washingon; 3) Early bronze gun, University of Washingon; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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