Apparently humanity discovered explosives a lot earlier than I thought. Whether this is a testament to our ingenuity, or our seeming desire to find a better way to rapidly self-destruct, I’m unsure….

In any case, some of the earliest records of explosives are among the Chinese. While we don’t know everything, we do know they made something explode in 142 A.D., and by the 4th century there is a record of the chemical reaction that occurs when saltpetre, pine resin and carbon are heated together. By the 8th and 9th centuries it is clear that the Chinese had fireworks for use in celebrations.

By contrast, the earliest record of gunpowder outside China is in 1240 A.D.. Apparently saltpetre had been known in the Middle East as “Chinese Snow” since the 8th or 9th centuries. Wait – snow? I always thought saltpetre was black! No, apparently it is white… Gunpowder is black, which is a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Presumably the charcoal is what makes “blackpowder” black.

By 1126 A.D., Chinese explosives were so advanced they were able to throw soft-cased gunpowder filled grenades by catapult. The grenades used either layer paper or mud casings. In less than 100 years, they advanced further to iron casings. They also used smoke bombs, which might have as few as 20-30 layers of paper in the casing to up to one hundred, sometimes with poisonous substances layered between. As per usual, our destructive creativity knows no bounds.


The Chinese names for the various bombs translates quite evocatively into English. Here are some examples and their functions:

I can see there is plenty of fodder here for future books….

Reference: Leong Kit Meng