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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.

More about Taoism
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Ingredients of gunpowder

A child holding yellow rocks on their palms

Gunpowder ingredients: Sulphur rocks

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.

More about sulphur

Charcoal: You got charcoal by burning wood very slowly, so that it blackened into carbon without burning completely.

More about how to make charcoal

Black lumps - Charcoal

Gunpowder ingredients: Charcoal

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.

dirty whitish and clear lumps in a brownish background

Gunpowder ingredients: Saltpeter crystals growing

The reason gunpowder explodes is that this mixture burns very fast. When it burns, it releases gases that are bigger in volume than the original powder (just the way steam is bigger than water is).

More about steam

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.

More about Chinese New Year

Gunpowder as a weapon

woman wearing long red Chinese outfit

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Under the rule of the T’ang Dynasty, about 700 AD, people used gunpowder more. T’ang Dynasty emperors used gunpowder to put on great fireworks displays.

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.

More about the T’ang Dynasty

Chinese bronze cannon

History of gunpowder: 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.

More about 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.

More about Roger Bacon

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.

More about medieval warfare

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.

More about European colonization

Since that time, guns have killed a lot of people. 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
Chinese Science
Or Chinese Mathematics
Chinese Astronomy

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese science:

See also Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, 5-7 (Cambridge University Press, 1987).

The Nine Chapters (a Chinese math textbook)
Chinese astronomy
More Chinese science
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