The predominant academic agreement is that gunpowder was invented in China, but no one scholar in the whole world could tell us the exact date of the creation of gunpowder. However, I researched different articles and found out that there are several major versions of the origin of gunpowder and each version assumes different time it was firstly received by people. According to some authors, for instance Joseph Needham, China used gunpowder in rockets and fireworks in the VII century B.C. (9), another theory tells that gunpowder came to Chine and Arabia in the 1st century from India and only during the Mongolian invasions and conquests in 13th century it became known in Europe (Shearer 5). It’s difficult to choose one of these theories, because all authors provide good evidences of their theories and it seems to me that gunpowder could be invented in different places and in different times and could be widespread within a small territory only.
It’s worth noting that the combustion properties of two of three components of gunpowder - sulfur and charcoal - were known to the ancient people who used materials which were found after the natural disasters such as forest fires or volcanic eruptions. However, only the preparation and purification of easily decomposable oxidant - potassium nitrate - allowed people to carry out the combustion process without air. Thus a substance which subsequently became the basis of rocket and firearms was obtained.
The first documented description of the composition and preparation of gunpowder recipe belongs to Zeng Gongliang, Ding Du and Yang Weide in the Wujing Zongyao, a military manuscript compiled in 1044 during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) (Gernet 311). The composition of the mixture was: 8 parts of saltpeter, 4 parts of sulfur and 1 part of charcoal. However, such gunpowder burned extremely slow and did not explode.
Scholars tend to think that gunpowder appeared in Europe with Mongolian conquerors (Shearer 5), but there is also a theory that gunpowder was invented in Europe by the monk and alchemists Berthold Schwartz (Kelly 63). In 1320 he mixed nitrate, coal and sulfur, put the mixture into a metal mortar and covered it with a stone. Spark emitted, then got into a mortar, and a bright flame flashed. However, I suppose, it is a legend only, because much earlier, in 1267, exactly the same chemical reaction has been investigated and described by scientist Roger Bacon (Easton 57). Nevertheless, he is not remembered in history books as an inventor of the gunpowder, which revolutionized military affairs and made a huge impact in the history of nations.
I have mentioned military affairs, because the most valuable characteristic of gunpowder – explosiveness – became highly called-for within armies. Western Europeans faced with the use of gunpowder on the battlefields with Moors on the territory of Spain during crusades (1096-1270) (Chase 58). Then, in the beginning of the 13th century in France people tried to find appropriate technology for manufacturing and use of gunpowder, but all of these efforts were prohibited by the Catholic Church, which proclaimed gunpowder as “devil’s potion”. In 1305 near Ronda in Spain Arabic army used first firearms, which shot with lead cannonballs. Spanish were impressed by those guns and after the three years Spanish Christians used similar cannons during the siege of Gibraltar (Chase 61).
Some years later, in 1324 in Metz, France the first manufacturing of the brand new cast copper guns was started (Chase 61). This event is recognized as the beginning of official history of the European artillery. After some time the artillery workshops, consisted of gunpowder manufactures and foundries, appeared throughout the whole Europe and became more and more popular in the same century. The first manufacture in Italy was established in 1345, in Holland in 1356 and in 1382 first manufacture was constructed in Russia. From the middle of the 15th century hand-thrown weapons was gradually replaced by firearms, which led to a change in tactics of warfare and provoked a series of local wars.
The invention of gunpowder and its spread around the world had enormous consequences for the subsequent history of mankind. Although Europeans were the last of civilized nations who learned how to make this explosive mixture, they extracted the greatest benefits from this invention.
The rapid development of firearms and revolution in military affairs were first and the greatest consequences of the invention of gunpowder. Another Chinese invention – compass – helped Europeans to discover Americas and other land, but gunpowder is probably the main thing that helped them to conquer those newly discovered nations. With gunpowder Europeans overcame people from other continents and established their world supremacy. Moreover, gunpowder helped European sovereigns to suppress feudal lords and finally to strengthen their own monarchy. For that reason countries began to establish regular armies. The technical progress in the military sphere started; new armies required new guns from time to time. That’s why countries bore huge expenditures and were forced to raise taxes for their people, which increased social inequality.
- Needham, Joseph. Introduction to The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery,
and Invention. Robert K. G Temple, ed., Rochester, V.T.: Inner Traditions. 2007. Print.
- Shearer, Deborah Vogt, Gregory. Brief History of Rockets. NASA Johnson Space Center Houston, TX, 2006. Print.
- Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
- Easton, Steward. Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science. Columbia University Press, 1952. Print.
- Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.
- Kelly, Jack. Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World. New York: Basic Books, 2005. Print.