Who invented gunpowder?
Like the idea of zero, gunpowder developed gradually over time.
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.
It probably wasn’t hard to think of mixing these three things. All three components of gunpowder were common in ancient China. Probably chemists were just mixing together a lot of things they had handy, to see what they would do.
Sulphur: You got sulphur by mining it out of the ground, where it exists naturally as a yellowish rock.
Charcoal: You got charcoal by burning wood very slowly, so that it blackened into carbon without burning completely.
Saltpeter: 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.
Saltpeter also occurs naturally inside some caves, and you can just go to those caves and mine saltpeter there.
How is gunpowder made?
You made gunpowder by mixing the three powders together, using about fifteen parts of saltpeter to three parts of charcoal and two parts of sulphur.
Gunpowder and fireworks
But even though scientists like Ge Hong knew how to make gunpowder, and they knew that it would explode, they didn’t have any particular use for gunpowder. For hundreds of years, nobody did use gunpowder much. Slowly people in China started to use gunpowder as fireworks, to make an exciting evening at a big party or for a religious festival.
Gunpowder as a weapon
Two hundred years later, in 904 AD, Chinese inventors saw that you could also use gunpowder as a weapon. First the army used fire arrows and fire spears. That’s basically like attaching a firecracker to the end of a spear or an arrow, so it will burn people.
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.
By the 1300s, Europeans were starting to use cannons regularly in wars. Cannons played a big part in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.
About the same time, Europeans also started to use gunpowder for blasting roads, and in mines, just the same way that people did in China.
History of gunpowder and European colonization
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.
Since that time, guns have killed a lot of people. Quatr.us does not in any way support the use of guns for any purpose. Fireworks are very pretty, though!
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
Or Chinese Mathematics
See also Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, 5-7 (Cambridge University Press, 1987).