Overview. Europe did not learn of gunpowder until the late twelfth century. By that time, the Chinese had perfected the “barrel gun” and the cannon. However, it was not invented by people looking for better weapons or even explosives, but by alchemists in search of the elixir of immortality.
Saltpeter. Gunpowder has three main ingredients: salt-peter or potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal. Long before saltpeter could be used as a component of explosives, it was used for its capability to turn ores into liquid and to dissolve other indissoluble minerals, such as cinnabar, into water solutions. Saltpeter was used for this purpose at least by the second century B.C.E., as well as for a flux to help metallurgical processes. The potassium flame test is crucial for detecting saltpeter, which burns with a violet or purple flame. This test for true saltpeter was used in China by at least the third century C.E., and the test was carried out by putting a sample of the saltpeter on a piece of charcoal and watching it burn. Sheng Xuanzi, in his book Illustrated Handbook on the Control of Mercury (1150), described the details of this kind of procedure.
Sulfur. The Chinese had the ability to purify sulfur by the second century C.E. By the eleventh century the Chinese had identified the method of obtaining pure sulfur by roasting iron pyrites piled up with coal briquettes in an earthen furnace. In 1067 the Song emperor issued an edict prohibiting the sale to foreigners of either sulfur or saltpeter and the private production of both commodities altogether. Large private enterprises in those commodities were thus forced to close their business, and the government established a monopoly.
Mixture. With saltpeter, sulfur, the readily available charcoal, and other substances, it was inevitable that alche-mists would eventually put these things together and invent gunpowder. By the mid seventh century Chinese alche-mists made some preparations, which included sulfur and saltpeter, but they were not flammable. By the beginning of the ninth century the Chinese had identified the method of subduing alum by fire through the mixture of two ounces of sulfur, two ounces of saltpeter, and one ounce of dried birthwort herb, which would contain sufficient carbon to make this mixture ignite suddenly and burst into flames, though it would not actually explode.
Protogunpowder. The first textual record of a proto-gunpowder formula is found in a book titled Secret Basics of the Strange Dao of the True Source of Things, published in 850 and preserved in the great collection of Daoist literature. The book included thirty-five dangerous elixir formulas, three of which involved saltpeter. Therefore, by 850 Chinese alchemists had created a formula that can be genuinely described as a gunpowder mixture.
Three Formulas. It was not until the year 1040 that an actual gunpowder formula was published for the first time. Certainly, true gunpowder and its uses had been known by this time for at least 100 years. Three gunpowder formulas were identified for three different weapons: a quasi-explosive bomb to be thrown by a kind of catapult; a burning bomb with hooks which could catch on to wooden structures and set them on fire; and a poison-smoke ball for chemical warfare. The gunpowder in these weapons was not explosive but burned with a sudden and sparkling combustion, creating a noise like a rocket. The bomb did not yet hold enough saltpeter to explode.
Small Explosion. In the gunpowder mixture, whatever the proportions, it is the sulfur that reduces the ignition heat to 250°C and, on combustion, raises the heat to the fusion point of saltpeter (335C). It also helps to increase the speed of combustion, but the explosive element in gunpowder is saltpeter, which burns at different rates even on its own. Gunpowder burns by taking oxygen from the saltpeter within it. The more saltpeter in the gunpowder, the more explosive it becomes. In the eleventh century Chinese gunpowder tended to hold about 50 percent saltpeter, and therefore was not really explosive. For a big explosion about 75 percent saltpeter is needed. The Chinese were slowly making progress toward this stronger proportion, which would eventually enable them to produce bombs, grenades, and mines in the following centuries.
Brian Hook, ed., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 1982).
Denis Twitchett and John Fairbank, eds., The Cambridge History of China(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978-1995).
David C. Wright, The History of China (London and Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001).
Gunpowder Plot, conspiracy to blow up the English Parliament and King James I on Nov. 5, 1605, the day set for the king to open Parliament. It was intended to be the beginning of a great uprising of English Catholics, who were distressed by the increased severity of penal laws against the practice of their religion. The conspirators, who began plotting early in 1604, expanded their number to a point where secrecy was impossible. They included Robert Catesby, John Wright, and Thomas Winter, the originators, Christopher Wright, Robert Winter, Robert Keyes, Guy Fawkes, a soldier who had been serving in Flanders, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham, Ambrose Rookwood, and Thomas Bates. Percy hired a cellar under the House of Lords, in which 36 barrels of gunpowder, overlaid with iron bars and firewood, were secretly stored. The conspiracy was brought to light through a mysterious letter received by Lord Monteagle, a brother-in-law of Tresham, on Oct. 26, urging him not to attend Parliament on the opening day. The 1st earl of Salisbury and others, to whom the plot was made known, took steps leading to the discovery of the materials and the arrest of Fawkes as he entered the cellar. Other conspirators, overtaken in flight or seized afterward, were killed outright, imprisoned, or executed. Among those executed was Henry Garnett, the superior of the English Jesuits, who had known of the conspiracy. While the plot was the work of a small number of men, it provoked hostility against all English Catholics and led to an increase in the harshness of laws against them. Guy Fawkes Day, Nov. 5, is still celebrated in England with fireworks and bonfires, on which effigies of the conspirator are burned.
See J. Gerard, What Was the Gunpowder Plot? (2d ed. 1897); S. R. Gardiner, What the Gunpowder Plot Was (1897, repr. 1971); J. Langdon-Davies, ed., Gunpowder Plot (1964); A. Fraser, Faith and Reason: the Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996).
GUNPOWDER. Albert Manucy explains that black powder was used in all firearms until smokeless and other type propellants were invented in the latter 1800's. "Black" powder (which was sometimes brown) is a mixture of about 75 parts saltpeter (potassium nitrate), 15 parts charcoal, and 10 parts sulfur by weight. It will explode because the mixture contains the necessary amount of oxygen for its own combustion. When it burns, it liberates smoky gases (mainly nitrogen and carbon dioxide) that occupy some 300 times as much space as the powder itself…. About 1450, powder makers began to "corn" the powder. That is, they formed it into larger grains, with a resulting increase in the velocity of the shot. It was "corned" in fine grains for small arms and coarse for cannon. Making corned powder was fairly simple. The three ingredients were pulverized and mixed, then compressed into cakes which were cut into "corns" or grains…. It has always been difficult to make powder twice alike and keep it in condition…. Black powder was, and is, both dangerous and unstable. Not only is it sensitive to flame or spark, but it absorbs moisture from the air. (Manucy, pp. 23-25)
Moreover, the components can settle out in storage, with the saltpeter, the heaviest ingredient, settling to the bottom of the cask. Powder casks had to be rolled periodically to ensure that the ingredients remained evenly distributed in the mixture.
Manucy, Albert. Artillery Through the Ages: A Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in America. National Park Service Interpretative Series, History No. 3. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office for the National Park Service, 1949.
Gunpowder Plot a conspiracy by a small group of Catholic extremists to blow up James I and his Parliament on 5 November 1605. The plot was uncovered when Lord Monteagle was sent an anonymous letter telling him to stay away from the House on the appointed day. Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament the day before the scheduled attack and betrayed his colleagues under torture. The leader of the plot, Robert Catesby, was killed resisting arrest and the rest of the conspirators were captured and executed. The plot is commemorated by the traditional searching of the vaults before the opening of each session of Parliament, and by bonfires and fireworks, with the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators, annually on 5 November.
gunpowder, explosive mixture; its most common formula, called "black powder," is a combination of saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon in the form of charcoal. Historically, the relative amounts of the components have varied. An increase in the percentage of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) increases the speed of combustion. In the past gunpowder was widely used for blasting and for propelling bullets from guns but it has been largely replaced by more powerful explosives. Another form of powder containing potassium chlorate instead of the nitrate is commonly used in fireworks and in matches. The origin of gunpowder was probably Chinese, for it seems to have been known in China at least as early as the 9th cent. and was there used for making firecrackers. There is evidence suggesting that it came to Europe through the Arabs. Roger Bacon was long credited with inventing it because a formula for making it is given in a work attributed to him, and some German scholars have credited its invention to the alchemist-monk Berthold Schwarz. However, it is now generally agreed that gunpowder was introduced and not invented in Europe in the 14th cent. Its use revolutionized warfare and ultimately played a large part in the alteration of European patterns of living up until modern times. Gunpowder was the only explosive in wide use until the middle of the 19th cent., when it was superseded by nitroglycerine-based explosives.
gun·pow·der / ˈgənˌpoudər/ • n. 1. an explosive consisting of a powdered mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. The earliest known propellant explosive, gunpowder has now largely been superseded by high explosives, although it is still used for quarry blasting and in fuses and fireworks. 2. (also gunpowder tea) a fine green China tea of granular appearance.
Gunpowder ★ 1987
Two Interpol agents endeavor to stop a crime lord from causing the collapse of the world economy. 85m/C VHS . David Gilliam, Martin Potter, Gordon Jackson, Anthony Schaeffer; D: Norman J. Warren; W: Roy MacLean; C: Alistair Cameron; M: Jeffrey Wood.
GUNPOWDER. SeeExplosives .