Grantham Civic Society Column: How China cooked up the recipe for gunpowder

Ruth Crook, of Grantham Civic Society.
Ruth Crook, of Grantham Civic Society.
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The discovery of gunpowder was thought to have been made around 2,000 years ago in China, when a cook accidentally mixed together three common ingredients, saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal.

When these were heated together to form a black flaky powder, they were found to ignite with a bang. The Chinese developed it further, by inserting the powder into hollow bamboo sticks, which when thrown into a fire caused a build up of pressure, splitting the bamboo with a loud bang.

John Bate's book was one of young Isaac Newton's favourites.

John Bate's book was one of young Isaac Newton's favourites.

These early fire crackers were further developed and used at Chinese festivals and celebrations.

Roger Bacon, an Englishman who lived in the thirteenth century, was one of the first Europeans to study gunpowder. He wrote ‘if you light it you will get thunder and lightening if you know the trick’. He realised what a potential for warfare this could have, and so wrote his experiments and findings in code.

In 1560, European Chemists finally managed to make gunpowder as an explosive by experimenting with the ratios of the ingredients. Medieval warfare would now never be the same again, as metal armour could be pierced and castles blown up.

In less than fifty years, gunpowder was being used in an attempt to cause harm. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt against King James I, by a group of Catholics led by Robert Catesby.

The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on 5 November 1605. An anonymous letter was sent to William Parker, Lord Monteagle, warning of the plot, and during a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4 November 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. Eight of the conspirators were later captured and put to death.

In 1655, the young Isaac Newton was sent to live with the apothecary William Clarke in Grantham while he attended the Grammar School. One of his favourite books was John Bate’s Mysteries of Nature and Art, written in 1634.

It described how to make kites, or ‘fire drakes’, with exploding firecrackers. Isaac would have access to the necessary ingredients in Clarke’s apothecary and alchemy shop. He made these fire drakes or dragons, which he flew over the town at night from Clarke’s roof top, which was next to the George Inn. This caused panic, as the townspeople were frightened that it would set their houses on fire.

Over 400 years later we still commemorate 5 November, as Guy Fawkes or Fireworks night, but the practice of children making a Guy and collecting ‘A penny for the Guy’, seems to have been largely forgotten.