English philosopher and alchemist
Roger Bacon is thought by modern
historians to be the first European to have
come across gunpowder. In 1248 a missionary
brought him a Chinese device known as a "firecracker"
that was used in celebrations. Intrigued,
Bacon took it apart and analyzed the contents to discover why it
exploded rather than merely burned. He soon worked out that the
black substance, which was to become known as gunpowder, was a mixture
of saltpetre and other chemicals.
Bacon also apparently realised the huge danger that this innocuous-looking
powder presented, and in his report he enciphered
the formula - an attempt to keep
it a secret for as long as possible. To find the true origins of
gunpowder, however, we must travel a few hundred years backward
in time, and a few thousand miles to the East.
Although the early history of gunpowder is murky,
it is believed to have been invented in China at about 900AD. Taoist
alchemists had been searching for the elixir
of immortality, and were testing compounds
such as saltpetre. Around this time it was discovered that the addition
of two common substances - charcoal
and sulphur - improves the rapid
burning of saltpetre into an explosion. Sulphur is long known to
science, and by 200AD was being produced by roasting iron
The scientific principle behind explosives is simple enough. A
mixture of solids must burn vigorously to produce a large volume
of gas, which rapidly expands from the heat of the reaction. The
saltpetre is an oxidant, and allows
the charcoal to burn far quicker than if it only had access to oxygen
in the air.
2KNO3(s) + 3C(s) + S(s) -----> N2(g) + 3CO2(g) + K2S(s)
The Chinese used this reaction for noisemakers
and signalling rockets at first.
The earliest mention of gunpowder being employed for warfare dates
to 1046. The first recognisable cannon
or firearm with an enclosed blast
chamber didn't arise until 1288.
Despite Bacon's best efforts, Europeans discovered the formula
and applied it to killing each other with great zeal. Weapon designs
developed rapidly, and gunpowder formulas were perfected. In 1429,
two Czech alchemists devised granulated
gunpowder, which is much more powerful and consistent, and less
vulnerable to moisture. Gunpowder revolutionised warfare during
the 16th century, as ancient fortresses
were suddenly vulnerable to cannons, and guns became small enough
to be wielded effectively by infantry.
It is acutely ironic that one of the most destructive inventions
in history was originally developed from research into achieving
Roger Bacon: 罗杰·培根
come across: 偶遇，碰到
saltpetre: 硝石， 硝酸钠
elixir of immortality: 长生不老药
iron sulphide: 黄铁矿
blast chamber: 燃烧室