Gunpowder

The discovery of gunpowder lies shrouded in the mists of time. We find ambiguous references in the writing of the ancients which the credulous and the romantic can use to prove—to their own satisfaction, at any rate—that almost any invention, including gunpowder, is a product of a dim and distant past.

In Virgil's Aeneid one can find mention of the attempt of Salmoneus to reproduce thunder; Valerius Flaccus can be quoted on the e if or is of the Brahmins to do the same; Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyanaeus says of the failure of Alexander the Great to storm India; "These truly wise men, the Oxydracae, dwell between the Rivers Hyphasis and Ganges; their country Alexander never entered . . . their cities, he never could have taken, though he had led a thousand as brave as Achilles, or three thousand such as Ajax to the assault; for they come not out to the field to fight those who attack them, but these holy men, beloved by the gods, overthrow their enemies with tempests and thunderbolts shot from their walls." In Vitruvius, and in Plutarch's Life of Marcellus are statements which can be extracted to indicate that Archimedes was familiar with gunpowder.

The ancient Sanskrit records (notably those quoted in the Halhed translation of the Gentoo Code as -printed by the East India Company in 1776 and alleged to date back some 500 years) and Oppert's On the Weapons of the Ancient Hindus published in England in 1880, are replete with allusions and out-of-context extracts which seek to establish a knowledge of gunpowder in India long before the dawn of European history.

French researchers in the last century endeavored to prove that the explosive was first brought to Europe by returning Cnisaders who learned of it from the Arabs who, allegedly, had employed it in the year G90 A.D. at the Siege of Mecca.

While there is adequate evidence of the use of inflammable compounds by the ancients, there is no real evidence that gunpowder—particularly as a pro-pellant—was known before the 13th Century.

On the contrary, there is a vast body of negative fact to make a case against gunpowder being used in very early times. Anna Comnena's work The Alexiad,m a history of the reign of her father, the Roman Emperor Alexius I, from 1081 to 1118 A.D., lists various Greek Fire formulas, but gives no evidence of a knowledge of a true explosive.

Another valuable piece of negative evidence is found in the account of one of the most remarkable—and most unknown—adventurer-ambassadors of all time: Giovanni di Plan Carpin. Carpin, a trained and experienced soldier thoroughly familiar with all the weapons of his day, was sent as ambassador

• An excellent English translation by Elizabeth Dawes of The Alcxxad was published in England in 1928.

to the Court of the Great Ghengis Khan at Karakorum by Pope Innocent IV in 1246 A.D. Carpin was greeted by the Great Khan as a worthy friend and soldier; and during his stay he traversed the length and breadth of the Mongol Empire and was an observer of wars between the Mongols and the Chinese. Methodically he listed the types and classes of weapons he encountered—ballista and similar military machines, the sling, bows, Greek Fire, and he carefully described the burning of invested cities by hurling melted fat or tallow projectiles into them. He wrote a detailed account of the historic siege of Kai-Fung Fu. Yet nowhere in his original report does he intimate an awareness of any substance resembling gunpowder.

Hime, Oman, Guttriiari, Kohler and other researchers have written thick volumes exposing the errors of translation and belief which produced the early fables of gunpowder. Most of the legends of very early Arab firearms and explosives stem from translations of documents in the Escurial made by the Librarian, Michael Casiri, between 1760 and 1770; translations which have been proved incorrect. As to the claim that the fourteenth century monk Berthold Schwartz (or Bartholdus Niger) discovered gunpowder at Freiburg in Germany, even a cursory study of the record discloses that the legend is baseless. A Professor Lenz in 1840, seeking to claim the invention for Germany, reported an alleged entry in the Memuriehook der Stad Ghant for the year 1313 which translated read: "In this year the use of guns was first discovered in Germany by a monk." Here would seem to be clear proof of the Berthold Schwartz claim. But there are six copies of the Memoriebook known to be in existence. Five of these contain no mention whatever of the passage cited. The sixth copy when checked by M. Diegerich, the conservator of old records at Ghent, about 1906 also failed to disclose the passage quoted by Lenz under the date listed. However, in a transcript of the Ghent annals for the year 1393, a passage of somewhat similar nature is found. In some manner Professor Lenz may have confused the year 1393 with the year 1313. If we assume that this one transcript is accurate, the fact remains that by 1393 firearms had appeared in every major comer of Europe, so that the Schwartz "discovery'- claim would certainly not be valid.

Where, then, did gunpowder first appear on the recordt In a manuscript first written in Greek by the unknown monk Marcus Graecus, which later appeared in expanded form in Latin under the title Liber ignium ad com-burendos bostes.

This remarkable manuscript, while listing formulas for Greek Fire, also gives specific formulas for gunpowder (ignis volans). One formula is: "1 part quick sulphur, 2 parts willow charcoal, 6 parts saltpeter/' Gunpowder made by this formula was too powerful for use in weapons made even in the 14th and the 15th Centuries, i'he Liber ignium lists 35 formulas altogether and also gives instructions for manufacturing rockets.

Hofcr in his Historie de la Chimie gave the date o£ this manuscript as the year 846 A.D.; but later researches by Hime, Oman and others, and examination of the translations at the Bibliotheque in Paris, the Hof-und-Staats-bibliothek at Munich, and Germanische National Museum at Nuremberg, and at Oxford University have established that while some passages in the Graecus

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Responses

  • edward minor
    Where is the gunpowder in modern guns?
    6 years ago

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