The Chinese trigger the race toward firearms.
Few inventions can have instigated as much misery to humankind as that of the seemingly innocuous gunpowder. Created by Chinese alchemists in the ninth century, gunpowder consists of a mixture of ground saltpeter (potassium nitrate), charcoal, and sulfur in approximate proportions of 75, 15, and 10 by weight. Known as “black powder,” its exposure to an open flame produces an explosion that can propel an object great distances when contained in a tube closed at one end.
The Chinese experimented with different levels of saltpeter content to design rockets. Arab chemists acquired knowledge of gunpowder in the thirteenth century, rapidly employing it for military purposes, including the production of a gun made from a bamboo tube reinforced with iron. The spread of information arrived in Europe, where gunpowder was manufactured in larger grains of uniform size to control the speed of burning, and advances in metallurgy witnessed the rise of the cannon and handheld firearms.
By the late nineteenth century, “black powder” had been replaced by nitrocellulose, resulting in a smoother, more powerful explosion from a firearm with little smoke deposit. Smokeless powder accounts for most gunpowder produced today, usually in single-base powder (nitrocellulose) or double-base powders (nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin).
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