Gunpowder was invented approximately two thousand years ago, a Chinese alchemist working with three distinct substances found something astounding.

When the materials were exposed to a flame, they did not simply burn; they exploded.

Over centuries, this revelation spread over the globe and profoundly altered the path of world history.

China was the only country that produced gunpowder. It is one of the Four Great Chinese Inventions, along with paper, the compass, and printing.

No gunpowder existed in ancient Egypt, Greece, India, or Rome, and it was invented and improved in China before being exported to the west. The Greeks had produced explosive compounds such as Greek Fire, but that was not gunpowder.

Gunpowder, often known as black powder, was likely accidentally discovered by a Chinese alchemist experimenting with chemicals. We do not know who assembled the requisite elements first, but we do know when they were first referenced in writing.

Most likely, the origin goes back to the first century. Probably surprised, the first alchemist who torched it would have found the world’s first chemical explosion.

In 142, Wei Boyang, an alchemist of the Eastern Han Dynasty, wrote about three powders that would fiercely fly and dance in the Book of the Kinship of Three.

Wei Boyang, regarded as the founder of chemistry, did not provide the formula. Therefore we do not know if he was referring to gunpowder; yet, the description fits gunpowder and nothing else.

Less than two hundred years later, in 318, the Taoist philosopher Ge Hong published The Master Who Embraces Simplicity, in which he provided genuine ingredients. Saltpetre, pine resin, and charcoal were specified.

Gunpowder combines charcoal, sulphur, and Saltpetre in its most basic form.

Charcoal is merely a carbon source, and it is incredibly accessible and the only ingredient everyone on the planet would own.

The second element is sulphur. Sulfur is not as prevalent as charcoal, but neither is it rare. There are sulphur mines all over the planet, and there are not a limited number of sites on Earth where sulphur may be found.

This is the third component. Saltpetre is quite uncommon, and Saltpetre’s chemical name is potassium nitrate.

The ratio of these three components has altered throughout time, although Saltpetre is the most significant component. Approximately six parts saltpetre, one part sulphur, and one per cent charcoal make up modern combinations.

Initially, Saltpetre was likely extracted from caverns containing bats and bat guano. In subsequent decades, the manufacturing of Saltpetre became the most crucial aspect of gunpowder production.

Even while gunpowder recipes, or at least crude ones, had been known for ages, they were not particularly useful.

During the Song Dynasty in the tenth century, gunpowder had its first practical applications.

Contemporaneously, a multitude of advances involving gunpowder was developed.

The earliest reported usage of flaming arrows was during the siege of Yuzhang in 904. Initially, fire arrows were only arrows linked to a bag of gunpowder. Eventually, they evolved into rocket-propelled arrows equipped with a miniature gunpowder rocket.

The flaming lance was the second gunpowder weapon to come around the year 950. A fire lance consisted of a long spear or polearm with explosives connected at the spear’s tip. It was planned to detonate at the beginning of an infantry battle. Stones and other projectiles were eventually added to the gunpowder to create a quasi-shotgun.

By the end of the 10th century, gunpowder had become an integral component of Chinese military strategy. During the siege of Zitong, Song Dynasty warriors used fire arrows to hold back 100,000 Liao Dynasty soldiers.

In the eleventh century, explosives made of metal containers loaded with gunpowder appeared.

In addition, the Song Dynasty began to restrict the commerce of gunpowder and gunpowder components, and the manufacture of fire arrows reached hundreds of thousands.

Vietnam was the first country to employ gunpowder outside of China, which was a significant development.

In the 12th century, ships were equipped with gunpowder guns. Bombs were deployed using trebuchets, and bombs were enhanced and enlarged. Additionally, the first items resembling rifles and cannons began to appear.

Also created were firecrackers, which consisted of gunpowder on paper rolls. Firecrackers were a popular method to celebrate in China, and they continue to play a vital role in this context today.

The first evidence of cannons dates back to the 13th century. The Wuwei Bronze Cannon was the first known metal-bore cannon when it was unearthed in 1980.

However, the most significant event using gunpowder in the thirteenth century was its departure from China.

The Chinese did not want the knowledge of gunpowder to spread for apparent reasons, giving them a substantial competitive edge.

The recipe for gunpowder was leaked during the Mongol invasions when the Chinese authority was fragmented and weakened.

We know it appeared in the Middle East about the year 1240. Using hand cannons, the Egyptian Mamluk Caliphate beat the Mongols in what is now Palestine during the battle of Ain Jalut in 1260.

Hasan al-Rammah, a Mamluk chemist, authored one of the oldest works on the purification of Saltpetre, which he referred to as Chinese snow, lending credence to the Chinese origin idea of gunpowder.

The diffusion of the secret of gunpowder from China was rapid.

Early English philosopher and scholar Roger Bacon is credited with introducing gunpowder to Europe around 1267.

When gunpowder travelled to the Islamic and Christian worlds, the recipe had been refined via years of Chinese development. There were flaws in the Chinese recipes of the time, which were also present in European and Middle Eastern dishes.

During the Mongol conquest of the subcontinent in the year 1300, the term was first recorded in India.

There was a tremendous gunpowder weapons competition in the 14th century. Here, innovation has expanded beyond China. Now that the gunpowder genie has been released, new applications and weapons are being created worldwide.

Europe was very innovative in its employment of cannons and weapons. This was mainly because Europeans possessed superior metallurgy despite China’s innovations in gunpowder chemistry.

The Europeans independently invented organ cannons before the Chinese, who merely assembled a collection of barrels. In addition, they invented the first breech-loading guns and several other advancements.

During this time period, there were massive bronze cannons throughout Europe, including ones that were 30 feet or 10 metres long.

During this period, India invented several gunpowder weapons independently, and gunpowder began to play a crucial role in military engagements.

The evolution of cannons and firearms lasted for centuries, and I do not wish to limit this episode to a list of gun developments. The segment focuses on gunpowder itself.

As previously stated, the primary component of gunpowder is either Saltpetre or potassium nitrate.

Obtaining enough amounts of this chemical proved problematic. There are a few amounts that may be discovered in nature, but there are not many.

In Europe, there were only two natural sources of Saltpetre around the 13th century. One in the vicinity of Montpellier, France, and another in Aragon, Spain.

In the late Middle Ages, Saltpetre was a vital strategic resource.

When England was at war with Spain in the sixteenth century, Spain understandably ceased all shipments of Saltpetre to England. Queen Elizabeth, I paid German military leader Gerrard Honrik 300 pounds of gold for the book “Instructions on Growing Saltpeter.”

Based on the current price of gold, this book cost almost $9.3 million.

As natural supplies could not fulfil demand, most nations began producing their own Saltpetre.

The primary method of saltpetre production was the collecting of faeces. In a recent episode, I discussed the evolution of sewers and how individuals in Europe were paid to clean cesspits.

The reason they did so was that all of the garbage had worth. It was used to manufacture Saltpetre.

The garbage would be put on a Nitre bed at a location known as a Nitrary. If accessible, other decaying organic debris would also be utilised.

The process mainly included mixing faeces with dirt, sand, or wood ash. Through a process called efflorescence, the potassium nitrate crystals would eventually emerge as a salt.

The crystals would be gathered, cleaned, and then used to produce gunpowder.

Due to the Union’s embargo, the Confederacy had a saltpetre scarcity during the American Civil War; thus, they established the Nitre and Mining Bureau to manufacture Saltpetre for gunpowder.

Early in the 20th century, industrial manufacturing commenced. Nitric acid was used to generate potassium nitrate using the Haber process, named after Fritz Haber.

In actuality, relatively little gunpowder is produced nowadays. Most fuels are composed of smokeless powder, with relatively little smoke and ash when burned.

It is plausible to argue that humanity would have been far better off if gunpowder had never been discovered. Nearly the course of over a thousand years of warfare, gunpowder has been used to murder large numbers of people.

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