Culture and Technology: Tracing the history of gunpowder

It is a notion commonly understood that the environment, culture and technology are indispensable from each other, cultures create new technologies that, in turn, cause the rise and fall of different cultures, and the environment provides the resources for both the development of cultures and technologies. Since its discovery, saltpeter has played a very prominent and vital component of modern civilization. By mixing saltpeter with sulfur and nitrate, we are able to produce gunpowder, which has forever changed mankind’s interactions between each other and with the environment. From the search for eternal life to the creation of the world’s greatest empires, by tracing the footsteps of gunpowder, we are able to witness how this single discovery changed the course of environmental and human history. In this paper, we will discuss the discovery and spread of this technology, and witness the interlocking connections between technology, human culture and the environment.

Up until recent years, historians have always credited the discovery of gunpowder to the Europeans in connection with the great Western-European Empires that emerged after the 16th century. However, recent discoveries in ancient Chinese text have revealed formulas for gunpowder that can be traced back to as early as 800 CE; a couple hundreds of years earlier than the first European records of gunpowder. It is believed that the discovery of gunpowder was a byproduct from centuries of alchemical experiments that were aimed to finding the formula for the elixir of immortality (Chase, P.31–32). Due to the vast territory under China’s control, Chinese alchemists gained access to a large variety of natural sources, including saltpeter. In fact, ‘the geographical location of the invention is probably closely connected with the fact that potassium nitrate is only found in natural deposits in China and the Bengal in India’ (Hobson, P.53), which contributed to the fact that saltpeter was considered one of Europe’s top imports until the process to produce saltpeter was discovered. The usage of saltpeter by the Chinese can be traced back to as early as 1st Century CE, and many traditional medicinal recipes have saltpeter listed as an ingredient. The Chinese word for gunpowder is Huoyao, which literally means ‘Fire Medicine’ and hints to the medical bases behind the discovery of gunpowder. Furthermore, the character for yao shares the same root radicals as the character for plants, hinting the natural origins of gunpowder.

Contrary to the misconception that Chinese gunpowder was primarily used for festive purposes instead of military ones, there is overwhelming evidence indicating that the military advantages of gunpowder were immediately recognized by Asian rulers and were quickly adapted to the use of their armies. The first-known gunpowder formulas recorded in text can be traced back to the 8th century, and much of these ancient recipes remain largely unchanged till this day. The following ancient text gives evidence that the Chinese had a clear idea of the potential destructive powers, ‘some have heated together sulfur, realgar, and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result so that their hands and faces have been burnt and even the whole house where they were working burnt down’ (Kelly, P4). These texts indicated the widespread knowledge of the inflammable properties of saltpeter, and suggested to experiments that led to the discovery of various gunpowder mixtures. By the 900s CE, there were already records of arrows carrying incendiaries that were ignited and used against into enemy forces. These early incendiaries projectiles were also used to ignite Greek fire, another invention that uses sulfur-based mixtures, and could be seen as the predecessor of modern landmines. Further research has shown that the development of gunpowder technology in China did not simply stop with projectile explosives, and that the invention of firearms such as guns and canons soon followed. The predecessors of guns appeared in China around the 10th century while the first guns were know to have existed around the middle of the 12th century (Needham, P.220-262). The constant disunity between the Asian cultures during this period (from the 8th to the 12th century CE) was the primary motivation behind the advancement of gunpowder technology in China, which led to the creation of the first armies that were equipped with gunpowder and firearms. Despite the expanding uses of gunpowder in the ancient Chinese armies, the destructive powers of the gunpowder were quite limited. The explosives were rather small in size compare to their modern counter parts, and the accuracy and lethality of firearms were lower then their modern potential. The armies at the time, though partially equipped with gunpowder, still fought through the traditional means of warfare. For example, the Mongolian army relied on their superior cavalry rather than their knowledge of gunpowder, to help them conquer much of Europe.

The influence of culture and gunpowder technology on the environment becomes more evident when we start to look at how the development gunpowder spread across the globe. The first expansion of gunpowder technology followed the Mongols (1206-1370 CE) and their mighty empire that stretched from Southern China to parts of Western Europe. The earliest gunpowder formula recorded in Europe was found in Roger Bacon’s Epistola de secretis operibus artiis et naturae, written around 1267. Roger Bacon was a personal friend of William of Rubruck, who was an ambassador to the Mongols in 1254-1255, allowed him to come in contact with the secret formulas for making gunpowder (Hobson P.186). It was not by chance that the earliest known gunpowder formula in Western Europe coincided with to the peak of the expansion of the Mongolian Empire. As I have mentioned above, even though the majority of the Mongolian army still fought using the traditional ways of warfare, the use of gunpowder for military purposes was already apparent (Hobson, P. 89). For example, in Japan, there are many picture depictions of handheld explosives that the Mongolian army used against the Japanese army during their failed conquest eastward.

Takezaki Suenaga facing Mongol arrows and bombs. From MokoShuraiEkotoba, circa 1293, 13th century.

The conquest of the great Mongolian empire must have also accelerated the development of firearm technology in China. The oldest guns ever discovered with a muzzle-bore diameter of 2.5cm dated back 1288, while the second oldest gun was dated to be made around 1332, which had a diameter of 10.5cm (Zhong, P.193-194). This not only corresponded directly to the period of the Mongolian empire, but also gave evidence to the advancement in firearm technology during that period time. However, due to the limitations in gunpowder technology, the early uses of firearms in armies were more focused on their ability to generate flash and thunder to intimidate enemy troops rather than killing them. Although gunpowder was invented in China, the true abilities of gunpowder were fully exploited only after its arrival in Europe.

Despite the fact that natural sources of gunpowder can only be found in China and India, it was Europe that picked up the leading role in the advancement of gunpowder technology after the 14th century. Along with the compass and printing, which also found their way from Asia into Europe, gunpowder became one of the primary forces behind the industrial revolution and the breakdown of the old feudal system. During late medieval times, European countries, unlike China, were constantly waging wars against each other due to limited resources and close borders. However, before the introduction of gunpowder and firearms, warfare in Europe was limited to those of higher social class because the cost of armor and weapons was very high. Therefore, the ability to wage wars was restricted to the hands of rulers who had the resources to purchase expensive armor and weapons. However, the eventual introduction of gunpowder gave peasants the power to challenge authority. With the decentralization of military power, gunpowder gave administrative power back to the common people that inevitably led to the breakdown of the old feudal system. The breakdown in feudal order and the religious disunity in Europe during the 13th to 15th centuries provided the second source of motivation for firearm development. The arms race between warring nations caused the rapid adoption of firearms into regular armies. In contrast to the army of the Ming Dynasty in China that managed to equip 1/3 of its troops with firearms, European wars were completely fought by guns and cannons towards the end of the 15th century (Sun, P.495-517). As Europe was dominated to castle towns towards the end of the medieval period, it provided the optimal testing grounds for the advancement of cannon technology. The desire for better siege weapons led to the earliest perfection of the cannon, which can not only deal great amount destruction to enemy troops but also the surrounding environment. Cannons used to bombard enemy garrisons and fortresses undoubtedly damaged the environment, destroying farmlands and causing wildfires. Battlefields from as late as the Independence and Civil War in America still carry the scars from the battles fought on them, which left behind giant craters and the destruction of vegetation.

By placing these deadly cannons on ships, European nations were able to quickly and efficiently gain dominance in the open sea, which led to the development of the great naval empires. It was during this period of imperialistic expansions that the development of handguns and cannons continued to accelerate. Until the start of the World Wars, European nations were well aware of their inability in conduct land-based warfare. Handguns were often very inaccurate and only became lethal at close distances; they also had a long reloading time, which limited their mobility and effectiveness (Kelly P.90). Despite the improvements in both accuracy and lethality, cannons also had very low mobility on the battlefield, so their destructive abilities were greatly reduced when it comes to swift land battles. In the 17th to 19th centuries, we were witnessed continuing improvements on all aspects of firearm technology. The invention of the mechanical engines, allowed steel battleships to carry increasingly bigger and stronger cannons. The advancements in artillery technology provided armies with the means to conduct effective and large-scale bombardments over long distances, and improved gunpowder formulas created even more devastation to buildings and the environment around the costal area. The advancement in firearms and cannons in Europe quickly outpaced that of China, and allowed the great naval powers to defeat China in the 1800s.

As we come closer and closer to modern times, we can see that the war-loving aspect of human culture continues to accelerate the development of gunpowder with the invention of TNT and C4 explosives. The advancement in aerospace technology led to the invention of missiles and air raids. Never before has mankind been so effective at bombarding vast areas of land and causing much devastation to the surrounding environment. Starting with the Second World War, we have seen aerial bombers that have the capability of destroying everything that is laid in their way. Even as we turn our focus away from warfare, we can still see numerous examples of how humans use gunpowder to manipulate the environment around them today. The increasing demand for raw minerals and land to support the exploding world population has caused us to use gunpowder in many different ways, to move millions of tones of earth for the development agricultural and commercial land, to create great dams for power generation, and to construct networks of tunnels for better transportation.  Many of these huge landscape projects were only made possible because of the invention of gunpowder.


Chase, Kenneth (2003), Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521822742 .

Kelly, Jack (2004), Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, Basic Books, ISBN 0465037186

Needham, Joseph (1986), Science & Civilisation in China, V:7: The Gunpowder Epic, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521303583

Zhong, Shaoyi (1995), Research on the History of Ancient Chinese Black Powder and Firearms, Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Press, ISBN 7500418000

Hobson, John M, "The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization", ISBN 0521547245.

Sun, Laichen, “Military Technology Transfers from Ming China and the Emergence of Northern Mainland Southeast Asia (c. 1390-1527)”. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Oct., 2003)



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last updated 1/25/10