22.03.2015 |

Episode #2 of the course “Inventions that changed the world and their stories”

In 850 A.D., Chinese alchemists mistakenly discovered gunpowder while playing with different elements. That combustible accident became the foundation for most weapons employed in war from that time forward. Gunpowder changed the way the world approached combat.

Chinese scientists, while experimenting with saltpeter (commonly known as the oxidizing agent potassium nitrate) in medical compounds for centuries, decided to mix it with sulfur and charcoal. The powdery surprise yielded smoke and flames that burnt the faces and hands of the scientists and burned down the house where they worked.

The Sung Dynasty used gunpowder against the Mongols, who plagued the Chinese with constant invasions into the country. The Mongols were among the first group to use flying fire or a tube of gunpowder attached to an arrow that fighters ignited to propel it over enemy boundaries. The Chinese used gunpowder as the foundation to invent other weapons, such as cannons and grenades, to defeat the Mongols.

The Chinese monopolized gunpowder until the end of the13th century, when the science traveled the ancient silk trade route across Europe and the Islamic world. By 1350, gunpowder cannons were regularly found in the English and French militaries. The Ottoman Turks also used gunpowder cannons in 1453. The new weapon rendered the fortresses of Europe defenseless, which were formerly impassable for more than 200 years.

A crucial turning point for gunpowder technology began with placing the substance into the chamber of a handgun. This technique first materialized in the 15th century as a copy of a large cannon fashioned for portable use. Guns put different weapons in soldiers’ hands and birthed the modern army. Gunpowder is still the basis for many modern weapons, including guns, though it is certainly far from the most explosive technique available to militaries today.


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