Gunpowder technology changed the art of warfare forever as it gave humans the chance to create deadly explosions and opened the way for new types of weaponry. How brutal gunpowder technology might be the initial thought behind the black powder was of a different origin.
The history of gunpowder starts during the middle ages when alchemists in China were obsessed with finding the elixir of life. A way to achieve immortality and live forever. They thought this could be achieved by creating some type of chemical mixture which would be able to give them eternal life.
Though no one ever found the composition of the elixir of life they did made many unforeseen discoveries. One of them being gunpowder. Since they found out that sulfur was chemically active, toxic and inflammable, they mixed it with saltpeter and charcoal before heating. Saltpeter is a strong oxidant which causes partial combustion of the sulfur, thereby reducing its toxicity and creating a explosive effect.
The invention of gunpowder was made during the Tang Dynasty (618-908 A.D.). The technology was later improved during the Song Dynasty (1127–1279), this was also the time when gunpowder was used on a larger scale during warfare. Gunpowder was widely used for entertainment, engineering and finding its way into mining, fireworks, tunnel-digging and water control projects.
Gunpowder in China was widely used to make firecrackers for celebrations. In the 10th century they would fill bamboo sticks with gunpowder and shoot the exploding compositions up in the air. They also refer to these early guns as firelocks. The first canons appeared during the Yuan period (1115 – 1368 A.D.).
The first description of gunpowder use for military campaigns comes from the military encyclopedia “Wu Ching Tsung Yao” dating back to the mid eleventh century. In the year 1232 gunpowder was being used by the Mongols to siege the city of Keifeng.
In the centuries that followed gunpowder was being used in ever advanced weaponry, from canons on ships to the first long range firing rifles.
In the late 13th century gunpowder technology arrived in Europe as the first descriptions of the black powder were made in the writings of medieval English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon (1220–1292).
The Chinese term for gunpowder is “huo yao” literally meaning fire drug or the drug that fires. In Shennong’s Herbal Classic which is believed to have been written during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) the ingredients of gunpowder sulfur and saltpeter were listed as important drugs which made the ingredients well known throughout ancient China.