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Invention of Gunpowder

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Invention of Gunpowder

For hundreds of years, humans could not imagine warfare beyond cavalry and archers, fortress walls, and catapults. Improvements had been made to earlier designs of weaponry, but the shape of warfare largely stayed the same. That is, until the Chinese invented gunpowder. While researching to create a potion of immortality, Chinese alchemists stumbled upon a chemical solution that could create a fiery explosion. Over a thousand years later, the invention of gunpowder's significance is still seen in modern military weaponry and societies of the modern world.

The Invention of Gunpowder Facts

The invention of gunpowder can be traced back to the middle of the 9th century in the Chinese Tang Dynasty. Chinese alchemists, using the chemical saltpeter (potassium nitrate), were attempting to create a potion of immortality. Instead, they created one of the most destructive tools in human history: gunpowder.

Invention of Gunpowder Formula Study SmarterAn excerpt from "Wujing Zongyao", the earliest Chinese document that details the chemical formula for gunpowder. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The earliest written formulas for gunpowder can be found in the Wujing Zongyao, a Chinese military manual from 1044 CE. The three primary ingredients in gunpowder were saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. Mixing in some other minor ingredients, Chinese inventors created a host of unique weapons, ranging from the terrifying "nest of bees" (an artillery battery that launched dozens of arrows at once) to gunpowder-propelled rockets and handheld explosives.

What about the fireworks?

Chinese fireworks date as far back as 200 BC with the invention of bamboo firecrackers. When the air pockets of bamboo chutes were heated, they would combust and launch into the air. When gunpowder was invented in the 9th century CE, alchemists did not have fireworks on their minds. Initially, they were seeking to create a potion of immortality. After the explosive discovery, their attention turned to the new possibilities of gunpowder weaponry. The implementation of gunpowder in Chinese fireworks was a side effect of military weaponry research.

History of Gunpowder

Following its invention in China, gunpowder has a long and storied history with many subsequent inventions and innovations. Traveling through the Silk Road, gunpowder influenced the development of every military in Eurasia throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Invention of Gunpowder Chinese Rockets Study SmarterArtistic depiction of gunpowder propelled arrows in "Wubei Zhi", a Chinese military book. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Spread of Gunpowder

Gunpowder weaponry became integrated into the Chinese military as early as the 11th century, used in defense against attacking forces. In the 13th century, the Song Dynasty and the northern Chinese kingdom of Xi Xia used gunpowder arrows and rockets to fend off Mongolian invaders. (Although gunpowder weapons would soon come to dominate the battlefield, they couldn't stop the armies of Genghis Khan!)

Invention of Gunpowder Silk Road Study SmarterMap depicting the Silk Road. Source: Belsky, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Under the peace and infrastructure of the Mongol Empire, the Silk Road flourished once more. Along with other goods and diseases, gunpowder technology spread into western lands in Europe and the Middle East. The Chinese were not intent on spreading the secret of gunpowder; as early as 1076 CE, the trade of saltpeter outside of China was banned. Because the Mongols, however, gunpowder recipes were being published in Europe by the end of the 13th century.

Types of Gunpowder:

Alchemists across Eurasia tested many different combinations of ingredients, ranging from charcoal to saltpeter, to sulfur and even honey in their creation of gunpowder. The differences were minute; if a combination of substances was not adequate, it was quite obvious in testing. Over history, gunpowder developed into four subgroups: black gunpowder (the oldest), brown gunpowder, flash gunpowder, and smokeless gunpowder. Whereas black powder was mostly made of solids (charcoal, saltpeter), the propulsion of smokeless gunpowder was mostly gas. Smokeless gunpowder, invented in the 19th century, made the black powder invention of 9th century China completely obsolete.

Gunpowder Technology in the West

The invention of gunpowder and the constant improvement of firearms are enough in themselves to show that the advance of civilization has done nothing practical to alter or deflect the impulse to destroy the enemy, which is central to the very idea of war.

-Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz

Philosopher and scholar Roger Bacon was the first to record a formula for gunpowder in Europe. Only a century later, in the mid-14th century, European cannons were rolling onto battlefields. In the Middle East, Arabs were already hard at work constructing the first gunpowder rifle, a weapon that would revolutionize warfare forever. Ironically, the facilitated travel of gunpowder to Europe and the Middle East by the Mongols introduced powerful gunpowder weapons in defense against future Mongol invasions.

Invention of Gunpowder Constantinople Study SmarterCannon fire raining down in the Siege of Constantinople. Source: Dosseman, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Since the 10th century, militaries in Eurasia began equipping themselves with gunpowder weapons. It was not until the 15th century, however, that the strength of gunpowder was revealed. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire completed a 53-day siege of Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire. The layers of defensive walls of Constantinople had repelled Ottoman invaders three times in the past, but with the new power of siege cannons, the Ottomans crumbled the city's walls.

The very essence of warfare had changed; old tactics and weapons became invalidated. By the 17th century, gunpowder rifles and cannons were commonplace among European and Asian militaries.

Uses for Gunpowder

Gunpowder was mostly used in firearms and other battlefield weaponry, such as cannons. There are some other uses for gunpowder, however, including:

  • Fireworks and special effects

  • Explosive devices (not necessarily for battle, such as usage in mining)

  • Medicine (gunpowder was often used to pack open wounds in battle)

Additionally, the development of gunpowder weapons differed in China and the western lands. In China, gunpowder was used to create anti-infantry batteries, as Chinese walls were built as thick stone slopes (which proved to be quite resilient against early cannon fire). European and Middle Eastern walls, on the other hand, were comparatively thinner and susceptible to damage by cannon barrages. Therefore, cannons were continually developed and enhanced in Europe and the Middle East.

Gunpowder histography:

Most historians agree that gunpowder was invented in China, but there are some discrepancies in early translations. For example, the Arabic word naft transitioned from meaning "a flammable liquid" (yes, flamethrowers came before gunpowder weapons!) to meaning "gunpowder". The Chinese word pao changed from meaning "trebuchet" to meaning "cannon". These etymological nuances can be confusing enough in determining who first invented gunpowder, but historians also debate the transmission of gunpowder technology throughout Eurasia, considering how quickly it traveled from China to Europe and the Middle East.

innovation of gunpowder - Key takeaways

  • Gunpowder was invented in 9th century China by alchemists who were trying to craft a potion of immortality.
  • Gunpowder recipes and technology quickly spread along the Silk Road, facilitated by the peace and security of the Mongol Empire.
  • Europeans and Middle Easterners developed upon the initial Chinese invention of gunpowder, creating powerful cannons and handheld rifles that would soon shape the next step in warfare.
  • The successful Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 displayed the superiority of cannons and gunpowder weaponry against the strongest of Middle Age bastions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Invention of Gunpowder

The invention of gunpowder introduced gunpowder weaponry in warfare, changing the face of combat forever.

Historians struggle to determine the exact name of the person who invented gunpowder. A nameless Chinese alchemist is accredited with inventing gunpowder. In Europe, Roger Bacon is accredited with recording the first formula for gunpowder in Europe in the 13th century. 

Gunpowder was invented in the 9th century in Tang Dynasty China. 

Gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists while trying to invent a potion of immortality.

The invention of gunpowder shaped the progression and conduct of warfare to the modern day. The introduction of gunpowder technologies shifted power balances in many nations. 

Final Invention of Gunpowder Quiz


In what century and in what country was gunpowder first invented? 

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9th century; China 

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What is one of the main ingredients of gunpowder, also known as potassium nitrate? 

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Why was gunpowder invented in China? 

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It was an accident; alchemists were trying to create a potion of immortality 

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What were some of the first uses of gunpowder in battle? 

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The Song Dynasty and Xi Xia used gunpowder against invading Mongols.

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What happened after gunpowder was invented in China? 

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Technology and resources to create gunpowder started to spread across Eurasia.

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How did gunpowder travel so quickly across Eurasia? 

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The Silk Road was rejuvenated by the security of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. 

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What is the name of the first European man to record the formula for gunpowder in Europe? 

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Roger Bacon 

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How effective were cannons in the fourth Ottoman siege of Constantinople? 

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Very effective; the city's infamous walls crumbled under the cannon fire. 

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How did gunpowder affect warfare? 

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Gunpowder dominated the battlefield. By the 17th century, rifles and cannons became commonplace in the best world militaries. 

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What was NOT another use for gunpowder throughout history? 

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Fermentation for crop fields 

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