The Explosive Quest for Immortality

Chinese Fireworks
Photo – disbeeman

Undoubtedly, the invention of gunpowder changed the course of history forever. Perhaps as far back as 200 AD, Taoist mystics, who were also alchemists, concocted and swallowed many combinations of minerals, salts and liquids in a ritualistic attempt to extend their lifespan and gain immortality. With supreme irony, some of these supposedly life-extending mixtures would be converted into gunpowder and with it an entirely new class of weapons to extinguish life.

Taoist alchemistPhoto:
Taoist alchemist
Painting / digital scan – chinapedia

Outside the realm of military historians, few know the name of Wei Boyang. In 142 AD, he set down notes about experiments where heat caused his ingredients to ‘fly and dance’ in a violent reaction that suggests gunpowder. Around 300 AD, Ge Hong, an alchemist of the Jin Dynasty, recorded experiments with heated saltpetre, pine resin and other carbon materials – mixtures that most historians accept as primitive gunpowder.

China – AlchemistPhoto:
China – Alchemist’s Furnace
Illustration – chinapedia

Saltpetre was known in China in the 1st century AD and used with sulphur in medicinal compounds. A 492 AD Chinese text mentioned that saltpetre gave off a purple flame and therefore could be reliably distinguished from other inorganic salts. The first solid reference to gunpowder is a passage in the mid-9th century AD Taoist text “Classified Essentials of the Mysterious Tao of the True Origins of Things.” It warned that chemicals with ingredients identified today as gunpowder (sulphur, realgar and saltpetre mixed with honey) were to be avoided because they were not true elixirs for eternal life.

Small gunpowder explosionPhoto:
Small gunpowder explosion
Photo – Franchu!

Though China’s early gunpowder mixtures persisted as firecrackers for celebrations and displays for royalty. Later, war and civil chaos would bring gunpowder and firecrackers to the battlefield and catalyze the development of new gunpowder weapons.

Gunpowder on the battlefield was first used to frighten the enemy – especially cavalry horses. Most gunpowder weapons had to wait for a high explosive black powder mixture that could be manufactured and handled safely. The design of a firearm that could fire a small iron projectile to a considerable distance with lethal force, and would also be safe to handle, presented another formidable challenge that would take time to work out.

Early gunpowders differed in the ratio of three essential ingredients – sulphur, charcoal (carbon) and saltpetre (potassium nitrate) as formulations were developed to maximize explosive potential. ‘Gunpowder’ and ‘black powder’ are two basic gunpowders with important differences.

Salt Petre CavePhoto:
Saltpetre Cave / West Virginia, USA
Photo- SurfinSandy23 / Photobucket Natural deposits of saltpetre are not common. Up to 70 employees would make different gunpowders in caverns like these in the US from 1796 to the American Civil War.

In older mixtures, simply known as ‘gunpowder’, the percentage of saltpetre is low by gunnery standards, around 40%. This first gunpowder could not be used in firearms such as handguns, hand cannons and earliest muskets because it did not have enough explosive power to project a small cannon or musket ball.

Salt Peter Cave, Cumberland Co, TennesseePhoto:
Grassy Cove, Salt Peter Cave 1, Cumberland Co, Tennessee, USA
Photo – Chuck Sutherland

‘Black powder’ is a refined and tricky formulation that took a long time to understand. Its saltpetre content hovers around 75%. This is the optimum value essential to maximize the explosive power for the munitions used in earliest ‘guns’ and cannons, while being still safe to handle. Mercury and arsenic were often included in early Chinese gunpowders; later formulas required refined sulphur and the manufacture of strong iron casings for gun and cannon ordinance.

The earliest recipes for gunpowder survived in two military treatises. The Wujing Zongyao “Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques,” was written in 1044 AD in the Northern Song Dynasty by three prominent scholars: Zeng Gongliang (editor), Ding Du (scholar) and Yang Weide (astronomer) under the orders of Emperor Renzong.

China / earliest gunpowder formulaPhoto:
China – Wujiing Zongyao (1144 AD) / Earliest Known Gunpowder Formula
Historical manuscript / digital scan – PericlesofAthens

The 14th century Huolongjing or “Fire Dragon Manual” was compiled by Jiao Yu and Liu Ji. It contains priceless information about earliest gunpowders, bombs, mines, fire arrows and rockets in China. By comparison, the first mention of the three essential ingredients for gunpowder – saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal – was made in Europe by Roger Bacon only in 1267.

Salt Peter Cave, Cumberland Co, TennesseePhoto:
Grassy Cove, Salt Peter Cave 2, Cumberland Co, Tennessee, USA
Photo – Chuck Sutherland / flickr

Song Dynasty gunpowder chemists worried that its formula might spread to the enemies of the ruling elite. Therefore in 1067, it became illegal to sell foreigners either saltpetre or sulphur in any form and in 1076, a government monopoly over the production and distribution of sulphur was established. By 1259, the city of Quinzhou was producing 1,000 to 2,000 bomb shells each month and sent shipments of 10,000 to 20,000 bombs to Xiangyang and Yingzhou.

Pyrite (FoolPhoto:
Pyrite (Fool’s Gold) / crystals
Photo – Aramgutang

By the end of the 12th century, cast iron grenades were filled with a highly explosive mixture that would burst their iron containers. In the 14th century, formulas existed where the amount of saltpetre reached 91% – far above the maximum explosive force mixture believed to be safe.

At this time, there were at least six Chinese formulas for gunpowder that had reached maximum explosive potential due to enrichment with refined sulphur extracted from pyrite (‘fools gold’). Wei Zing (d. 1164, Song Dynasty) was said to have created a gunpowder than could launch ‘fire-stones’ up to 400 yards. Gunpowder was a new ‘force multiplier’ with extraordinary power. Henceforth, war and the world would never be the same.

Simone Preuss contributed valuable editing support.

Sources –

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