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Discovery of Gunpowder

Scholasticus K Mar 5, 2019
Scientific inventions have played a very important role in shaping the civilization and lifestyle of man, throughout history. The discovery of gunpowder is one such invention that revolutionized arsenals and battlefields.
Among the list of chemical explosives, gunpowder was the only known 'recipe' for many centuries.
Discovered by the ancient Chinese, gunpowder and its ingredients were briefly mentioned in the Taoist text, Zhenyuan miaodao yaolue, though, its properties and usage as an explosive agent were not explored and experimented with.
The first written procedure for its manufacturing is seen in the Chinese military guide, Wujing Zongyao. Though many burning agents such as Greek fire, had been used previously, the first explosive agent was the gunpowder, whose roots can be traced back to the Chinese alchemy experiments.
It is believed that the Chinese alchemists of the 9th Century discovered it accidentally, when an experiment for the search of elixir of life went haywire. Sometimes, it is also argued that gunpowder might have been invented earlier, since the Chinese alchemists were familiar with substances like saltpeter and sulfur.

Wujing Zongyao

In ancient China, gunpowder was initially used as a propellant in firecrackers. The invention of firearms, the discovery of gunpowder, and many more related explosive recipes, led to a drastic change in the battlefield. Crude bombs and firearms started appearing on the Asian continent, in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The first standardized and most successful procedures were laid down in the Wujing Zongyao, which was a Chinese military guide written by prominent scholars Zeng Gongliang, Yang Weide, and Ding Du, who collaborated in 1044 AD to pen a "collection of the most important military techniques".
Chinese alchemists had, by this time, discovered gunpowder of the most explosive nature, that consisted of saltpeter, sulfur, charcoal, and some other ingredients. Many new discoveries and variants kept on appearing till the modern era, when substances like nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, smokeless powder, and TNT were developed.
One of the most famous variants of gunpowder mentioned in the Wujing Zongyao, consists of 48.5% saltpeter, 25.5% sulfur, and 26% of other ingredients. This combination was used to manufacture incendiary bombs that were hurled by the siege engines.
Another mixture contained 38.6% saltpeter, 19% sulfur, 6.55% charcoal, and 35.85% other ingredients. This mixture was used as a fuel for poisonous smoke bombs. Arsenic and mercury were also, at times, added to make it poisonous.


There are several variants and different uses of gunpowder. Its discovery has drastically changed warfare. It not only led to the use of firearms on the battlefield, but many more weapons such as poisonous bombs, grenades, fire arrows, and even land mines were developed.
A Chinese text known as Hu Long Jing, from the 14th Century, depicts the use of multi-stage rockets, fire arrows, different types of fireworks, as well as naval and military explosives and mines.
During the siege of Pyongyang in the year 1593, about 40,000 Chinese soldiers used a variety of cannons and firearms such as muskets.
The Chinese empire tried very hard to keep the recipe of gunpowder a secret . However, it soon leaked out. Kingdoms in Mongolia and India began to make the use of gunpowder, especially on the battlefield, and for various purposes like fireworks, making mine shafts, tunneling, and the construction of canals.

Dispute Over Further Development

Countries in Asia like China, India, Mongolia, and the Islamic states, came up with their own variants, innovations, and different discoveries related to gunpowder mixtures.
The variant used by the Europeans was the black powder. The discovery of black powder is however disputed, as two people claim the credit. Some people believe that the innovator who discovered it was Roger Bacon, who was a Franciscan monk and an alchemist.
Another Franciscan monk who is said to have innovated black powder is, Berthold der Schwarze. He was also known as 'Berthold the Black', and is said to have invented the first gun.
Facts about Berthold are not clearly known, and the dates of his birth, death, and the time when he invented the gun or black powder are disputed.
In his epitaph it is said:
"Here lies Berthold the Black,
the most abominable of humans,
who by his invention has brought misery,
to the rest of humanity."
One could argue with the writer of the epitaph of Berthold the Black. The contribution of the Chinese civilization to the invention of gunpowder did not just change the battlefield scenario.
In fact, more innovative and creative uses of it have helped man move mountains during mining and tunneling, turn deserts into lush green fields by building canals, and make civilization more comfortable and safer than before.