The Chinese Accidentally Invented Gunpowder. What if it Never Happened?

The history of humanity contains a long list of wars, with the earliest war recorded dating back to c. 2700 BCE. Constant clashes between dynasties mandated the perpetual development of armaments and technology, which led to the simultaneous progress of the history of war with that of science.

Along with innovations in military technology, humanity has continued its search for the elixir of immortality for centuries, tracing back as far as the late 9th century. During the Tang dynasty of China, a few alchemists challenged themselves to formulate the elixir of immortality by mixing 75 parts saltpeter (potassium nitrate), 15 parts sulfur, and 10 parts charcoal. The experiment resulted in an explosion when the final mixture was exposed to open flames. Though the alchemists failed to achieve the desired result, the experiment led to the discovery of a material that independently revolutionized military technology. The three materials used by the alchemists resulted in the formation of gunpowder, a discovery considered to be one of the most important inventions by the Chinese.

One of the earliest mentions of gunpowder can be found in a 9th-century Taoist book which warns alchemists against mixing these three materials, specifically with arsenic, as “those who have done so have had the mixture deflagrate, singe their beards, and burn down the building in which they were working.”

Tracing back our footsteps, it is evident not all inventions were an outcome of a blueprint, but rather, a number of them, like gunpowder, were accidental. This leaves one to wonder what the world would look like if perhaps those 9th-century alchemists never set out to formulate the elixir or perhaps used different materials for their experiment.

When we think of a world without gunpowder, it is not unusual to imagine a world without the deadliest wars known to man, the nuclear bombs that destroyed entire cities, and maybe just a more peaceful place to live.

But the discovery of the first chemical explosive is the genesis of the present world in more ways than one can imagine.


The earliest known written formula for gunpowder, from the Wujing Zongyao of 1044 AD. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)


Gunpowder ,Wars, and Weapons


It was undoubtedly a revolution for militaries all over the world. Speaking on the era before gunpowder, Laichen Sun, assistant professor of history at California State University, Fullerton, says, “There were swords, longbows, and crossbows, but the development of gunpowder radically changed the tactics of the battlefield and, of course, history.”

The ancient weapons Sun speaks of have long been out of service. The four years of World War 1 witnessed deadly action from high-technology weapons like rifles, flamethrowers, poison gas, tanks, aircraft, and more.

The evolution of the guns used today began with experiments that involved bamboo and gunpowder in propelling various projectiles on the enemy by the Chinese military. The focus was to develop weapons with features of propelling projectiles.

Li Shih-Chen, a great naturalist of the Ming Dynasty, is noted to have written in his book Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu (The Great Herbals), “Now the military technicians when making fire-weapons (lit beacons, cannons, and suchlike machinery) use compositions containing saltpeter; so they fly up high, as if straight to the clouds and the Milky Way.

Between the 11th and 13th centuries of the Sung dynasty, the Chinese technicians made the fundamental discovery of a tube filled with gunpowder and attached to a feathered stick that would propel itself with sufficient force from a bow and crossbow. The ‘rocket arrows’ were the first rockets made by man. Through years of experiments and trials, the Chinese engineers successfully invented multiple-stage military missiles.


A fire arrow utilizing a bag of gunpowder as incendiary. As depicted in the Huolongjing (c. 1390). (Image: Wikimedia Commons)


To The Moon and Beyond


In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. 52 years since then, we have witnessed innumerable spaceflights making their way outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Moving further ahead of the moon, scientists at NASA continue to explore the surface of Mars with an aim to send humans to the planet by 2035.

As the tourism sector expands from Earth to space, it is time to pause and understand gunpowder’s role in this long, extravagant journey.

In 1804, a few hundred years after the Chinese invention of military rockets, Colonel William Congreve began experimenting with improving the captured Indian military rockets in Woolwich, London. Congreve rockets, as they were known, were much larger with gunpowder compressed tightly in metal cylinders rather than pasteboards, which ensured their resistance against the increased pressure created by the rocket.

A few years after the Congreve rockets, in 1907, a young Robert H. Goddard, with the aim of developing a meteorological rocket, began experimenting with gunpowder. Fuelled by gunpowder, Goddard’s first rocket created a lot of smoke and was highly unsuccessful. His first experiment opened new gates to space rockets, and by 1914, he was awarded two patents, one for a liquid-fuelled rocket and the other for a two-three-stage solid-fuelled rocket.

Speaking on the importance of gunpowder, Robin D. S. Yeats, Professor of History and East Asian Studies at McGill University, in an interview with Nova, says, “By the end of the Sung Dynasty, the Chinese invented multiple-stage rockets. If we hadn’t had that, maybe we would not have been able to put a man on the moon. It was that fundamental an idea.


On the Road and in the Air

Long before the steam engine was developed, in the late 17th-century, Christian Huygens and his assistant Denis Papin designed an internal combustion engine that was to be fuelled with gunpowder. Huygen found inspiration from Dulle Griet, a giant cannon used in the Battle of Ghent in 1411. Witnessing the cannon propelling a 700-pound projectile, the physicist soon began his research to utilize the war weapon for non-destructive purposes. Though the experiment was unsuccessful, it led to the idea of a piston steam engine which formed the basis of Papin’s experimental steam cylinder and piston of 1690.

Lynn White Jr., a professor of medieval history, in his book, Medieval Technology and Social Change, notes,

The cannon is not only important in itself as power machine applied to warfare: it is a one-cylinder internal combustion engine, and all of our more modern motors of this type are descended from it… Indeed, the conscious derivation of such devices from the cannon continued to handicap their development until the nineteenth century, when liquid fuels were substituted for powdered.

Even with his unsuccessful experiment, Huygens shared his supposition that with gunpowder, it would be possible to drive vehicles on land or water, and even aerial vehicles could be powered with gunpowder.

Few years after Huygens’ prophecy, an English baron, Sir George Cayley of Brompton, in 1807 designed an engine to be fuelled by gunpowder. Cayley’s calorific engine was different from Huygens’, such that it was designed for aerial vehicles. Again, the gunpowder engine proved to be unsuccessful, but it gave physicists and engineers a direction that helped make aerial vehicles a reality.

Whether an automobile engine or an aircraft engine, gunpowder was the outset for the development of engines. Steam engines and internal combustion engines are successors of gunpowder engines. The prototypical designs of the engine made land, water, and aerial transportation a possibility.

The first explosive material has long been replaced by stronger materials, but its importance cannot be disregarded. The initial journey of gunpowder recorded a series of wars and destruction, the worst of which can be presumed to be the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The invention, in many ways, built and destroyed a number of cities around the globe, but without gunpowder, the present picture of the world would be quite different.


Ramsha Zubairi is a freelance writer based in India. With a Master’s in English Literature, she has a special interest in politics and history.