Minerals, Metals, and Other Materials

Man-Made Products

When and where was gunpowder invented?

The explosive mixture of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal called gunpowder was known in China at least by 850C.E., and probably was discovered by Chinese alchemists searching for components to make artificial gold. Early mixtures had too little saltpeter (50 percent) to be truly explosive; 75 percent minimum is needed to get a detonation. The first use of the mixture was in making fireworks. Later, the Chinese used it in incendiary-like weapons. Eventually it is thought that the Chinese found the correct proportions to utilize its explosive effects in rockets and “bamboo bullets.”

However, some authorities still maintain that the “Chinese gunpowder” really had only pyrotechnic qualities, and “true” gunpowder was a European invention. Roger Bacon (1214–1292) had a formula for it and so might have the German monk Berthold Schwartz who is believed to have lived in the fourteenth century. The year 1353 is often given as the date of his invention of gunpowder. Its first European use depended on the development of firearms in the fourteenth century. Not until the seventeenth century was gunpowder used in peacetime, for mining and civil engineering applications.


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