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The Pre-History of Gunpowder

An illustration of a fire arrow rocket launcher as depicted in the 11th century book Wujing Zongyao.
An illustration of a fire arrow rocket launcher as depicted in the 11th century book Wujing Zongyao.

The Pre-History of Gunpowder

By Geoff Smith

Published Online (2012)

Introduction: Although it is now generally agreed that gunpowder originated in China in about the 9th century AD, few credible attempts have been made to explain its origins. Several individuals have been credited with the invention, particularly in medieval European texts; Berthold Schwarz of Freiburg, Roger Bacon, Tipsiles of Augsburg etc. but none were of the right era or location and some are probably legendary.

The birthplace of gunpowder has been claimed by Germany, Mongolia, India, even Sri Lanka and others with varying credibility and little supporting evidence. Muller states that gunpowder was ‘invented by King Vitty’ who can be credibly identified as the Emperor Wu Ti (漢武帝) of the Han dynasty ruling 156-87 BC. Unfortunately, Muller does not elaborate or give the source of his assertion. Needham has meticulously reviewed the early records including his unprecedented access to contemporary Chinese documentation and scholars at a time when few Western scholars could either visit China or had the necessary linguistic skills.

However, this still leaves open the question of how or why gunpowder first originated. The eurocentric explanation tends towards a monk grinding the ingredients in a mortar and causing a spectacular explosion. A common candidate is Berthold Schwarz dated at late 14th century.

Apart from being discredited on grounds of date, gunpowder, although extremely sensitive to sparks, will withstand quite a lot of grinding without ignition – and what prompted that particular mixture of ingredients?

There is a Chinese tradition that a cook carrying a bowl of saltpetre slipped and dropped it onto a charcoal fire. That would certainly create a considerable conflagration but, as the ingredients were not mixed, hardly an explosion. We should also question what the cook was doing with the saltpetre. At that time it was an expensive commodity largely used in the extraction of metals but not common in Chinese cooking. Again, the presence of sulphur is not explained.

In the absence of documentary evidence, it is still possible to posit a credible sequence of events which will, perhaps, serve as a basis for debate.

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