Have you ever wondered where gunpowder comes from? How it’s made? How it was invented? Would you believe me if I said it was an accident? Well, it was. A rather ironic accident, actually. You see, it all started in ninth century China. But first…
Let’s start with the ingredients
Gunpowder consists of three primary ingredients: Saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon. Saltpeter, also known as potassium nitrate, was first found as a white crystalline on rocks or cave walls where there was an abundance of decaying organic matter. Caves and sheltered structures were ideal for the formation of saltpeter. Large deposits have been found in ancient lake beds and deserts. And in the southern region of China, where climes are warm and tropical, Saltpeter was abound.
For hundreds of years prior to the discovery of gunpowder, the Chinese used saltpeter for a number of reasons, including the oxidization and transformation of ores and minerals and the curing of meats.
As for sulfur, it is unclear as to how the Chinese obtained it. Records on the subject are scarce, and those that do exist are ambiguous. We do know the Chinese began to make use of sulfur as early as the Zhou dynasty (sixth century B.C.). They were interested mainly in its medicinal potentials, its flammability, and its reactivity to other minerals. Sulfur and its compound vitriol — when combined with other elements like mercury — could be used for a number of pharmacological purposes, such as the treatment of skin diseases, malnutrition, and other ailments. Vitriol was also used as a dye for clothing. So it was for more than 700 years that sulfur found its place in Chinese society. As well as carbon, which is found in common coal.
But it wasn’t until Chinese Taoists began combining the three compounds that things got… shall we say, hot.
Where gunpowder came from…
It is normal for humans to make mistakes. LSD was discovered accidentally by Albert Hoffman, while trying to create a new respiratory stimulant for a pharmaceutical company. For a long time, everyone believed the Earth was flat. And just the other day, I drove on the highway without realizing I’d left my shoes on top of my car. Fortunately, they were still there when I returned home to look for them. But the point is, humans have been making mistakes since the dawn of time. So when Chinese Taoists set on the quest to create the elixir of immortality, we’ll just have to forgive them for accidentally discovering gunpowder.
The story goes that in the ninth century, Chinese Taoist alchemists in hot pursuit of eternal life combined saltpeter, sulfur, and coal in a near-fatal concoction. The result was explosive — literally. The entire house in which they’d been working burned down.
That’s right. People searching for immortality instead found gunpowder.
The rest is history. By the eleventh century, an official formula for gunpowder was written. And the Chinese used it for everything from fending off the Mongols to making fireworks. 12,000 years later, we’re still combining saltpeter, sulfur, and coal to fill our bullets, to make bombs, fireworks, etc.
Gunpowder has been one of the most pivotal inventions in human history, and if it wasn’t for one happy accident on the part of some eternity-hungry alchemists, it might’ve never come to be.