History of Gunpowder: Gunpowder in ancient China

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Fireworks and a Chinese dragon: History of gunpowder

History of gunpowder: Fireworks

Who invented gunpowder?

Like the idea of zero, gunpowder developed gradually over time. In 142 AD, during the Han Dynasty, a man named Wei Boyang was the first to write anything about gunpowder. He wrote about a mixture of three powders that would “fly and dance” violently. We aren’t sure that he meant gunpowder, but that’s the only explosive that uses three ingredients that we know of. He may have been a Taoist trying to find a potion to let you live forever.

Ingredients of gunpowder

By 300 AD, a Jin dynasty scientist named Ge Hong had certainly written down the ingredients of gunpowder and described the explosion. Scientists made gunpowder in ancient China by mixing sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, or potassium nitrate. You got sulphur by mining it out of the ground, where it exists naturally as a yellowish rock. You could make potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, by taking animal manure and letting it sit around for a while and decay. Then potassium nitrate crystals formed in the manure, and you could drain them off by washing water through the manure pile. You mixed the three powders together, using about fifteen parts of saltpeter to three parts of charcoal and two parts of sulphur. The reason gunpowder explodes is that it burns very fast, and when it burns it releases gases that are bigger in volume than the original powder (just the way steam is bigger than water is).

Chinese bronze cannon

A small bronze cannon from Gansu (about 1220 AD)

Gunpowder leaves China

The Chinese emperors tried to keep gunpowder as a secret weapon, but by the 1100s AD their secret had gotten out, and people in the Islamic Empire and then the Roman Empire started to understand how to use gunpowder for weapons. After that, it wasn’t long before people in Europe also learned how to use gunpowder. Nobody is sure exactly how they found out, but it might have something to do with the Third Crusade.

European gun that shoots arrows

History of gunpowder: Earliest image of a European gun (1326). The gun shoots arrows.

By 1216 AD, a monk named Roger Bacon in England described gunpowder as a weapon. He thought of it as something that came from foreign places. Unfortunately for the people of West Africa, they hadn’t heard about gunpowder yet when European people attacked them in the 1400s AD, which is one reason why the Europeans were able to defeat them.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the history of gunpowder? Let us know in the comments.

Learn by doing: go see a fireworks show
Chinese Science
Or Chinese Mathematics
Chinese Astronomy

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese science:

The Nine Chapters (a Chinese math textbook)
Chinese astronomy
More Chinese science
Ancient China
Quatr.us home

By | 2017-12-06T12:13:47+00:00 June 7th, 2017|China, Science, War|55 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. History of Gunpowder: Gunpowder in ancient China. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 7, 2017. Web. February 25, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

55 Comments

  1. Jake February 22, 2018 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    When it was first invented it was called Black Power but now it gunpowder.Why did they change the name into gunpowder?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 22, 2018 at 11:05 pm

      When it was first invented it was called something in Chinese, yes? But they couldn’t call it gunpowder because they hadn’t invented guns yet. That took another thousand years. “Black powder” is our modern name for the early kind of gunpowder made by mixing sulphur, charcoal, and saltpeter. What we use today – “smokeless gunpowder” – is made of a lot of complicated man-made chemicals. You can read about them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokeless_powder

  2. lol February 22, 2018 at 9:37 am - Reply

    What is gunpowder mad out of and when was this published?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 22, 2018 at 11:35 am

      The publication date is at the end of the article, with all the other citation information. Do you mean gunpowder back when it was first invented, or today? We don’t make it exactly the same way today as people did then.

  3. lol February 21, 2018 at 9:17 am - Reply

    I need help.

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 21, 2018 at 9:39 am

      Happy to help anytime! You’ll need to ask your question though.

  4. Elizabeth February 20, 2018 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Hello, when was this published? I will be using this for school work and I need to know!

    • Elizabeth February 20, 2018 at 12:48 pm

      Also, Why was gunpowder made?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 20, 2018 at 1:23 pm

      That would depend on who was making it. At first, gunpowder was just a sort of science experiment, and it may even have been made accidentally, while trying to make something else. Later, people used it for fireworks. Then they started to work on ways to make it into a weapon. That process, from science to fireworks to weapons, took about a thousand years.

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 20, 2018 at 1:22 pm

      The citation info is right below the end of the article on every page.

  5. elijah bobo February 12, 2018 at 10:08 am - Reply

    i have a question how does gunpowder work

  6. HELP ME! February 8, 2018 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Just asking but how many people used gunpowder every years?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 8, 2018 at 10:47 pm

      I’m not sure what you are asking? Which years? In the very beginning, only a few specialists knew about gunpowder. Today, millions of people use it every day.

  7. Tay February 5, 2018 at 4:14 pm - Reply

    Hi.

    • bobthebuilder February 8, 2018 at 9:39 am

      hi

  8. carlos February 5, 2018 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    i need help

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 5, 2018 at 2:16 pm

      I’m happy to help! What’s your question?

  9. me February 1, 2018 at 9:41 am - Reply

    please me need help help

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 1, 2018 at 9:46 am

      What’s your question?

  10. Yuki January 30, 2018 at 10:09 pm - Reply

    What historical role did gunpowder play from the middle ages on?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 30, 2018 at 10:14 pm

      I think that’s your homework, Yuki?

  11. nathan January 30, 2018 at 8:59 am - Reply

    i need help please!!!!

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 30, 2018 at 10:13 pm

      What’s your question, Nathan? I’d be happy to answer it.

  12. bobthebuilder January 29, 2018 at 11:56 am - Reply

    what new inventions were made with gunpowder. And dont tell me to look it up because im lazy

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 29, 2018 at 9:39 pm

      Hmm, what if I am lazy too? What would *you* make with gunpowder?

  13. help January 27, 2018 at 11:45 am - Reply

    what impact did gunpowder had on the Chinese in the Golden Age

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 27, 2018 at 1:52 pm

      That sounds like your homework?

  14. bulia January 25, 2018 at 9:07 am - Reply

    i need help on a essay for a school project i need info

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 25, 2018 at 10:24 am

      I’d be happy to help, but you have to ask specific questions I can answer. “Info” is too general.

  15. Ruby January 24, 2018 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    Who really made it?(dont say Chinese people)
    Who was first person who test out gunpowder?
    Without gunpowder what will happen?
    Why did they keep gunpowder as a secret?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 25, 2018 at 10:24 am

      The answers to these questions are in the article, or they are things your teacher wants you to think about for yourself.

  16. Quintin January 23, 2018 at 11:37 am - Reply

    How did other civilizations change the gunpowder????????

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 23, 2018 at 12:26 pm

      We don’t really cover that on this page; gunpowder changes much later on, in the modern period, to make it more stable and reliable.

  17. AmeeVang January 23, 2018 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Hi there my name is amee and i am doing gunpowder for my project in school and i am in 7th grade.I need all the information in this website but i cant really find what i need so i have to ask you this question and i really hope you answer it if you dont i dont really mind so “why was it invented?” and “what make it so important?”

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 23, 2018 at 12:26 pm

      I think the answer to “Why was it invented” is that scientists were just interested in what would happen if you mixed different things together, and they happened to mix things that exploded. That must have been exciting!
      And I think you can figure out for yourself why gunpowder is important!

    • AmeeVang January 23, 2018 at 12:40 pm

      Thank for your help!

  18. buut January 22, 2018 at 7:12 am - Reply

    hola

  19. Noor December 24, 2017 at 4:37 am - Reply

    hi Prof..your information help me a lots on understanding the existence of gun powder..is it the gun powder also known as black powder?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr December 24, 2017 at 4:28 pm

      Yes, early gunpowder is also called “black powder” to distinguish it from modern, smokeless gunpowder that is made a little bit differently.

  20. Matthew December 9, 2017 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Hey I was wondering if maybe you could post your sources on this. I am a UCLA student writing a final paper on gunpowder, it would be really helpful. Thanks!

    • Matthew December 9, 2017 at 12:36 am

      Whoops just noticed the bibliography! Disregard!

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr December 9, 2017 at 11:39 pm

      Oh, I’m glad that worked out for you! Best of luck with your paper.

  21. Jhon December 6, 2017 at 11:22 am - Reply

    lol!

  22. Bo December 5, 2017 at 5:55 pm - Reply

    Hi

  23. Me November 30, 2017 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    No really I need more info

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr November 30, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      What would you like to know? I’ll be happy to answer if I can.

  24. Me November 30, 2017 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    hi

  25. gdftgerd November 29, 2017 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    hi

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr November 30, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      Hi yourself! Thanks for stopping by.

  26. gg November 27, 2017 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    hi

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr November 27, 2017 at 10:02 pm

      Hi yourself! Thanks for stopping by!

  27. lala November 8, 2017 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    hi

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