Fireworks displayTrue or false: The Chinese invented gunpowder a thousand years before it was known in the West, but being a peaceable people, they used it for many centuries only for fireworks.

This is one of those trick questions that is neither true nor false. The real story seems to be that the Chinese did indeed have fireworks at the time of the Roman emperors, that they did invent gunpowder, and that the use of gunpowder in war started sometime around the tenth century. Nevertheless, gunpowder was used as a weapon in China from the time of its discovery. The unstated — and false — assumption is that fireworks require gunpowder.

Early Chinese fireworks consisted of colored and perfumed smokes and noisemakers often called firecrackers. These early firecrackers were simply sections of bamboo thrown onto a fire. The bamboo sections would explode as the air and moisture inside the closed sections heated and expanded. The bamboo crackers may have been used initially to frighten more primitive tribes away from campfires, while smoke was used for fumigation and as a signal in warfare, so even these fireworks were not entirely peaceful.

Fireworks displayThe first evidence for gunpowder is in about the 9th century, and consists of a Taoist warning against mixing saltpeter, sulphur, arsenic compounds, and honey (which supplied carbon), on the grounds that burnt hands, faces, and houses had resulted from the experiment. By the beginning of the 10th century, however, there is mention of the use of “fire-drug”, the term later used for gunpowder, in war.

The early gunpowders were low in saltpeter and burned rather than exploding. They seem to have been well established in incendiary bombs, poison smoke bombs, and fire arrows — not exactly peaceful uses — by the eleventh century. At about the same time, a new and noisier kind of firecracker appeared, probably similar to modern firecrackers. Fireworks on frames were known by the 12th century, and may have involved gunpowder.

Fireworks displayOne kind of fireworks, definitely known by 1264, may have been the first step toward the rocket. This was the “ground-rat”, probably a bamboo tube filled with gunpowder and with a small hole in one end. When lit, it rushed violently around on the ground. (A dud firecracker will sometimes behave in the same way.) The exact date has survived because of an incident in which a ground-rat chased the Emperor’s mother at a fireworks display. Luckily for the officials in charge of the display, the Empress-Mother, though frightened at the time, had a sense of humor and was able to laugh about the incident by the next day.

At some point in the next century, ground-rats of this type were used in warfare. They would certainly have been quite as upsetting to horses as they were to the Empress-Mother, and in addition the military ground-rats were fitted with hooks to catch on clothing.

Fireeworks displayA ground-rat bouncing around on rough ground would at times take flight for a short distance, and some alert designer of weapons came up with the idea of fastening a ground-rat to an arrow. The result was the first rocket, an arrow that could be fired without a bow. The fireworks designers promptly stole the idea back from the military, removing the arrowhead and adding a gunpowder bomb, whether plain or packed with material that would produce colored lights. Modern flights to the moon and planets are based on exactly the same principle, though the details are more complex.

By the middle of the 13th century Dominican and Franciscan friars were traveling to the Mongol court at Karakorum. One of these friars may have sent a package of firecrackers to Roger Bacon, whose writings indicate a knowledge of firecrackers as children’s toys, an awareness of the ingredients of the gunpowder within them, and a realization of the military potential of larger versions. The Chinese, however, had at that time already been using cast-iron bombs filled with high-nitrate gunpowder for a century or more.