Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Powder that Changed the World

Pili huopao (Thunder Clap Bomb)
China was a cradle of civilization. From its great rivers, Chinese Empires rose and fell with several dynasty flourishing and declining. The Chinese contributed a lot for the progress of mankind. From ship design, to weapons, to silk, and many more. Among the greatest invention of the Chinese that changed the world is a black powder that would revolutionize warfare forever.

Gun powder is a material used to make rockets, bullets, and many more types of weapons. Its origin could be traced back to the Chinese. In China, gunpowder is called huoyao, meaning, fire drug or five medicine. Gunpowder creation was somewhat ironic. Today, gunpowder is a vital part for making bullets to kill. However, gunpowder was discovered by alchemist in search of the elixir of life. A powder aimed in expanding life would eventually cause it to end.

It was during the Han Dynasty, from 206 BCE to 220 CE that experimentation that led to the gun powder began. Han alchemist learned that sulfur was a very combustible substance and deemed dangerous. In order to control its flammability, the alchemist added saltpeter. This formula of saltpeter and sulfur was recorded to Shennong’s Herbal Classic. 

Fei Huoqiang (Fire Lance)
Advances on gunpowder were made by the succeeding dynasty. The Tang Dynasty was credited for creating the three part formula of gunpowder. The mixture of sulfur and saltpeter was added with charcoal. The Tang alchemist then discovered that the compound was very combustible and could cause explosions. During the Song Dynasty, gunpowder was recorded and used for war. A scholar named Zeng Gongliang published the formula of gunpowder in his Wujing Zongyao or the Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques. With gunpowder, many new weapons were built. Bombs known as pili huopao or thunderclap bombs were used during the battle of the Song and the Jurchen Jins in Caishi. Fire lances or the fei huoqiang were used in many battles, which saw action during the Siege of Kaifang in 1232.

Gunpowder would eventually make its way to the west via trade. The Silk Road that stretched across Asia. The formula of gunpowder made its way to the west through traders that crisscrossed the road. This in turn led to the creation of artillery and the harquebus. From the west, gunpowder continued to progress, bringing the world into a new age of warfare.
Deng Yinke. Ancient Chinese Inventions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 

Selin, H. (ed.). Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Culture. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997. 

Wright, D. The History of China. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011.

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