Iga-ryu Ninja Museum, shows how ninjas concealed and booby trapped their weapons.

Fly and Violently Dance: The Explosive History of Alchemists, Knights and Ninjas


The first European records of gunpowder were written in the 13th century by Roger Bacon, the English philosopher and Franciscan friar who was believed by many to have been a wizard. In 1248, a missionary allegedly brought Bacon a device from China used in celebrations, known as a ‘firecracker’, which he pulled apart and analyzed, attempting to discover why it exploded so violently.  Bacon soon worked out that the active powdery black substance was a mixture of saltpeter and other chemicals which was identified as a ‘huge danger’ so he subsequently enciphered the secret formula, attempting to keep its destructive powers from falling into the wrong hands.

Roger Bacon Discovers Gunpowder, from Bill Nye's Comic History of England. (Public Domain)

Roger Bacon Discovers Gunpowder, from Bill Nye's Comic History of England . (Public Domain )

Discovery of Gunpowder

The original discovery of gunpowder, however, was detailed in Yoke Ho Peng’s 1985 book Li, Qi and Shu: An Introduction to Science and Civilization in China. In 142 AD, during the Han Dynasty in China, an alchemist called Wei Boyang who had been searching for an Elixir of Life: “accidentally discovered the explosive effects of mixing saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur and charcoal” and he was the first person to write about gunpowder as a mixture of three powders that would: “fly and dance violently.”

In ancient China, the curative effects of saltpeter and sulfur had been utilized in the treatment of diseases but this new mixture, which ignited and burned more rapidly, was used: “exclusively to give fireworks extra punch” and it was approximately 100 years before another alchemist in China noticed that the more oxygen rich the saltpeter, the more powerful the resulting explosion would be.

The earliest known written description of the formula for gunpowder appears in the Chinese  Wujing Zongyao  military manuscript compiled around 1044 AD during the Song Dynasty of China, in a page titled ‘method for making the fire-chemical’ ( huo yao fa ).

The earliest known written formula for gunpowder, from the Chinese Wujing Zongyao military manuscript (1044 AD). (Public Domain).

The earliest known written formula for gunpowder, from the Chinese Wujing Zongyao military manuscript (1044 AD). ( Public Domain).

Knowing that if the gunpowder compound was ignited in a sealed environment the heated gases would shatter its container, the immense potential powers of gunpowder began being developed for military applications like fire arrows, flaming rockets and burning lances, all of which were early conceptual weapons in the development of guns, cannons and rockets.


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Ashley Cowie  is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history .

Top Image: Iga-ryu Ninja Museum, shows how ninjas concealed and booby trapped their weapons. (Public Domain)

By Ashley Cowie

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