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History of gunpowder
Gunpowder was the first chemical explosive and the only one known until the invention of nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, smokeless powder, and TNT in the second half of the 19th century. Prior to the invention of gunpowder, many incendiary and burning devices had been used, including Greek fire.
The invention of gunpowder is usually attributed to Chinese alchemy, and is popularly listed as one of the "Four Great Inventions" of China. The invention was made perhaps as early as during the Tang Dynasty (9th century), but certainly by the Song Dynasty (11th century). Knowledge of gunpowder spread throughout the Old World as a result of the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 14th century, although the development of effective artillery took place during the 15th century, and firearms came to dominate Early Modern warfare in Europe by the 17th century.
The prevailing academic consensus gunpowder was formulated in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality. By the time the Song Dynasty treatise, Wujing Zongyao (武经总要), was written by Zeng Gongliang and Yang Weide in AD 1044, the various Chinese formulas for gunpowder held levels of nitrate in the range of 27% to 50%. By the end of the 12th century, Chinese formulas of gunpowder had a level of nitrate capable of bursting through cast iron metal containers, in the form of the earliest hollow, gunpowder-filled grenade bombs.
As early as 492, Chinese alchemists had noted that saltpeter burns with a purple flame, allowing for practical efforts at purifying the substance, one of the most important ingredients in gunpowder. The first reference to gunpowder in China occurs in a Daoist work from the mid-9th century, the Zhenyuan miaodao yuolüe. However, the earliest surviving chemical formulae date to approximately 1040 in the Wujing Zongyao. At this point the formulae contained too little saltpetre (about 50%) to be explosive, but the mixture was highly flammable. A silk banner slightly predating the Wujing Zongyao depicts a gunpowder-fueled flamethrower.
Fireworks were invented in ancient China in the 10th century to scare away evil spirits.
In AD 1280, the bomb store of the large gunpowder arsenal at Weiyang accidentally caught fire, which produced such a massive explosion that a team of Chinese inspectors at the site a week later deduced that some 100 guards had been killed instantly, with wooden beams and pillars blown sky high and landing at a distance of over 10 li (~2 mi. or ~3.2 km) away from the explosion.
By the time of Jiao Yu and his Huolongjing (a book written by Jiao Yu that describes military applications of gunpowder in great detail) in the mid 14th century, the explosive potential of gunpowder was perfected, as the level of nitrate in gunpowder formulas had risen to a range of 12% to 91%, with at least 6 different formulas in use that are considered to have maximum explosive potential for gunpowder. By that time, the Chinese had discovered how to create explosive round shot by packing their hollow shells with this nitrate-enhanced gunpowder.
A medieval European work describing the powerful weapons that had been built by the Chinese, had been suggested by historian Kenneth Warren Chase to be referring to the Chinese invention of Gunpowder.
According to modern historians genuine firearms appeared to have been invented first in China in the 13th century. The Chinese developed fire arrows in 989 tipped with explosives, along with flame throwers by 1000. Another weapon was called the huo-yao pien-chien, meaning "gunpowder-whip-arrow".
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