From Alchemy to Warfare
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Perhaps the Taoist monk who discovered gunpowder over 1,000 years ago would have thought so if he’d seen the weapons it went into; he was looking for an elixir of immortality!
There appear to be recipes for gunpowder in Taoist texts as far back as the 5th century C.E., but Taoist alchemy was written in codes that shifted over the centuries, so it’s hard to say for sure. But there’s no doubt about a passage in the 9th-century text Zhenyuan Miaodao Yaolue (lit. Essentials of the Mysterious Way of the True Origin): “Some have heated together sulfur, realgar, and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.”
Soon after the discovery, the Chinese quickly developed fireworks, and in the ensuing centuries, they invented flamethrowers, rockets, bombs, land mines, and ultimately firearms. The Chinese first employed gunpowder in warfare during the early 12th century, using fire arrows to defend against Mongol invaders.
An illustration of fire arrow launchers as depicted in the Wubei Zhi, 1621. The launcher is constructed using basketry.
Within a century, the Mongols had adopted the technology and were utilizing gunpowder in hand cannons along the borders of Europe and the Middle East. Soon it spread throughout Europe and the Arab world. Roger Bacon, a British philosopher-scientist, wrote first of its existence in the West in the 13th century; shortly afterwards, recipes appeared in the texts of other European natural philosophers and alchemists such as Marcus Graecus and Albertus Magnus. By 1350, it was used in cannons by the French and English during the Hundred Years’ War and by the Ottoman Turks in their siege of Constantinople.
The Heilongjiang hand cannon. It’s the world’s oldest confirmed surviving firearm, manufactured no later than 1288. It weighs 7.83 pounds (3.55 kg) and is 13.4 inches (34 cm) long.
In the 16th century, firearms began to replace traditional weapons like swords and spears. The first firearms were relatively simple, consisting of a barrel, a stock, and a matchlock mechanism to ignite the gunpowder. Over time, firearms became more sophisticated, with improvements in accuracy, range, and firing rate.
Walter de Milemete. De Nobilitatibus Sapientii Et Prudentiis Regum Manuscript, 1326. Earliest depiction of a European cannon.
Gunpowder is among the simplest and weakest of explosives. It contains charcoal and sulfur as fuel and saltpeter as an oxidizer (providing oxygen to burn). All these substances are referred to in Chinese medical texts for hundreds of years before gunpowder, which was first called “fire medicine” in Chinese. It was an especially handy mixture for guns because it burns relatively slowly and at a low temperature for an explosive; more powerful explosives would have cracked the barrels of old guns. It was never powerful enough to be great for blasting, such as in quarries, and nowadays more powerful explosives are used for most of its original applications and in all modern explosive weapons. “Black powder,” as gunpowder is now called, is still used in fireworks, flares, and some blasting—for stone to be used in monuments, because gunpowder doesn’t shatter it as much as newer explosives.
Gunpowder definitely contributed to the Ottoman empire’s conquest of Constantinople. Its greatest impact on war in Europe was making the stone fortifications of old castles much less useful. It may not have given Europeans a great advantage over each other, since it came late to Europe and to all her major powers, but it certainly contributed hugely to the European conquests of Africa and the Americas in subsequent centuries, where firearms must have seemed like magic to most residents of those continents.
It’s impossible to escape the irony of gunpowder, between its discovery in the search for immortality and its application in genocide. Perhaps the Taoists who first created it would have been gratified at its dual nature, like the yin and the yang.
“There are two things necessary to salvation...money and gunpowder.” —George Bernard Shaw
“We owe to the Middle Ages the two worst inventions of humanity – romantic love and gunpowder.” —André Maurois
“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.” —Carl von Clausewitz
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” —Albert Einstein
“War does not determine who is right - only who is left.” —Bertrand Russell
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