Invention of Gunpowder

Feature, Middle Ages

A Revolution in Mans Ability to Kill

Slowly, carefully, as silently as possible, though they were extremely heavy and it was difficult to avoid rumbling them through the stone passages, the conspirators brought in their thirty-six barrels, spread them about the vault. Half a dozen times they were moved, arranged differently, put into a shape which might give the maximum destructive effect, like Fawkes, Catesby, Rokewood, Percy and the others argued over the relative merits of piling them one on top of the other in a heap, forming them into a hollow square, spreading them in a semicircle, like a necklace. There was the question of fusing them: would an impregnated rope give a sure result? Would it be best to open each barrel, allow a little of the powder to spill over the floor of the vault? Then it could be sprinkled out of the door and up the stone steps to where Fawkes or some other nominated conspirator would light it and run for shelter.

Getting access to the vault and to this quantity of gunpowder had taken time, and now, when it was in position, the plotters separated to consider their separate parts in the plan which would go into operation when the Sovereign and his Parliament had been blown to pieces. This, God willing, would happen on 5 November, as James I was opening Parliament. The intervening months were only just enough for the conspirators to arrange details of the government which would take over on the afternoon of 5 November 1605. No doubt there would be angry, even sorrowing subjects of the king when it happened; but there would also, among the Catholics, be many who rejoiced. For it was the latest measure of repression against Catholics which had built resentment to this pitch, a resentment strong enough for regicide, and there would be plenty of sympathy for the Catholic cause. After all, it was not the first time a king of England had been murdered; it was not likely to be the last.

Someone, and to this day his name is secret, sent an anonymous letter to Lord Monteagle. Monteagle was a Catholic and a devout one, but he was profoundly shocked at the information he now read: a huge quantity of gunpowder, a wicked word In itself, was being secreted into the House of Lords, might well be there already, and it would go up in an explosion to rock the whole of London the moment King James began to speak.

Frantically, for there was little time to lose, Monteagle summoned all the nobles and courtiers known to be loyal, told them of the fantastic “gunpowder plot”. The building would have to be searched from end to end, it’s every point of entry guarded, until the ceremony was over: the plotters might not bring their powder in until the last moment, it might be in wine barrels, anything. There were countless tunnels and vaults, it could be anywhere, and a dozen barrels of this lethal, unpredictable substance anywhere in the building would easily destroy King and Parliament. As for the thirty-odd barrels hinted at, the thought was too appalling to contemplate. Pieces of James and his legislators would whirl round the sky for centuries.

They found Guy Fawkes on 4 November. He was huddled into the chilly corner of a cellar not far from the gunpowder vault, ready, a day in advance, to light his fuse. They dragged him out, beat and tortured him, learnt where the powder was hidden and rushed the barrels out into the open air before they could explode: then they took him away. After hours of the most terrible torture they dragged from him the names of the other conspirators, and they were all, with Fawkes himself, executed.

To this day the vaults under Parliament are ritually searched each year, at the opening of Parliament: the 5th of November is still commemorated by burning effigies of Guy Fawkes and letting off large quantities of gunpowder in the form of fireworks. The Gunpowder Plot is history, though there are some who maintain it never took place.

They are a small, disbelieved, minority, but they claim it as a dastardly Protestant scheme to justify severe penalties on the Catholics; they say the barrels of “gunpowder” contained nothing of the sort, were secreted there by Protestants in order to be melodramatically “discovered”; that Guy Fawkes and his “conspirators” were only unfortunate Catholics who were tortured, executed, for a purely political end: such was the magic, the horror, of gunpowder, that a plot involving it would be sure to rouse not only rage but panic.

Gunpowder is the oldest, the most famous, of all explosives, the one with vastly the greatest historical significance, the one of whose history we know least. Long before its introduction to Europe, there was flaming, sizzling, stinking compositions of various kinds, man-made phenomena called “wildfire”. Substances like charcoal, pitch, sulphur, saltpetre, went into them in different proportions and with different results. The results were spectacular, even frightening, but “wildfire” was fire, not an explosion. The first man to manufacture a substance with the properties we associate with gunpowder was Roger Bacon. The first man to make use of these properties was Berthold Schwartz. Of Schwartz we know little, but Bacon’s achievements in science and philosophy have made him a figure of some importance. He was born in about 1214, at Ilchester in Somerset: seven centuries after this presumed date, just as a war was beginning which would use his invention and its more deadly successors to the full, a brass plaque was fixed to the wall of the Ilchester church, by “a few admirers of his genius”. The plaque recorded that, apart from his prophecies of “machines to propel vessels through the water without sail or oars; of chariots to travel on land without horses or other draught animals; of flying machines to traverse the air5′, Roger Bacon “first made known the composition of gunpowder”. Although he did indeed “first make known the composition of gunpowder”, it is unlikely that Bacon invented it.

Probably he was the first man to establish its explosive property: before Bacon’s time the powder had been a frightening toy, which made smaller, bigger, brighter, darker and differently coloured flames according to the proportion of its ingredients. But with Bacon we learn that we can “call up thunder and destruction” by a mixture of “saltpetre seven parts, five of young hazel twigs, and five of sulphur”, or, more exactly, to quote his own subsequent formula, 41-2 per cent of saltpetre and 29.4 per cent each of carbon and sulphur. One reason why Bacon was able to explode his mixture was that the saltpetre, which had previously been scraped from walls or taken from piles of animal refuse, could now be purified by crystallizing its solution in water. Alchemists had just discovered that all salts could be obtained this way, in a form purer than ever before: with this pure saltpetre (or potassium nitrate, to give it a chemical name), Bacon was able to make an explosive mixture, write down its formula.

Probably he knew nothing of its propellant power, had no idea that guns would someday be made using this power to fling cannon-balls at an enemy. The discovery of this important property was made, as far as we can tell, by Berthold Schwartz, who lived some hundred years after Bacon, in Germany. Legends have grown up around him: he is Berthold Schwartz, Bertholdus Niger, Black Berthold. Like Bacon, he is said to have been a Franciscan monk.

And there is an inscription below an old engraving of Berthold which calls him “inventor of the art of using firearms, in the year 1380″. The date is questionable as there is an illustration of a primitive gun in a manuscript of 1325. Our facts about Berthold are so vague, so imprecise, that he is almost a legendary figure. He has the credit for inventing the first firearm and as no one else has come forward to claim the honour, it rests with him. The invention altered the history of the world in countless ways and at different periods: in most pictures of Berthold there is the figure of the devil in the background, directing operations.

Gunpowder, because of its awe-inspiring, magical properties, was developed more as a black art than a science. There were strange tests for the purity of its ingredients:

“When thou buyest or makest saltpetre, and will find whether it be good or not, so thrust thine hand thereinto. If thine hand become damp, then it is not good: but if thine hand bide dry, then it is good. Also touch thine hand with thy tongue: if thine hand be salty, then the saltpetre is not good. But if thine hand be sweet, then it is good. And if thou wilt try whether sulphur be good or not, take a lump of sulphur in thine hand and lift it unto thine ear. If the sulphur crackle, so that thou hearest it crackle, then it is good: but if the sulphur keep silent and crackle not, then it is not good…”

For charcoal, the wood of poplar or lime was considered best. If it were mixed in the correct proportion with “really good and well refined” sulphur and saltpetre, the result would be an explosive which would ignite with great power, and indeed, until the middle of the nineteenth century when its place began to be taken by other explosives, it held undisputed sway in warfare and in mining. The proportion of its ingredients varied considerably at different times and in different countries, and the methods of grinding it developed over the years from mortar and pestle to a complicated factory process. The main problem was controlling the substance, after its three non-explosive, simple ingredients had been mixed and it was suddenly a lethal weapon. It seldom went off spontaneously, though this happened from time to time, to the alarm of its practitioners, but when packed into a cannon and ignited behind a projectile it was likely to destroy cannon and all around it. King James II of Scotland was killed this way by the bursting of a bombard at the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460, and it was not until the end of that century that an effective control was achieved.

After the discovery that gunpowder could be used to propel bullets from guns, a discovery that wrested North America from the American Indians, India from the Asians and large parts of China from the Chinese (the people who are believed to have invented it in the first place, hundreds of years before Bacon or Berthold, and forgotten the art), the next major development in its use was the invention in 1814 of the percussion cap. Primed with fulminate of mercury which produced a hot flame when struck, it did away with the tedious flint and steel, or the “slow-match” fuse, steeped in saltpetre and limewater. Now, when a firearm could be discharged by pulling a trigger, the ultimate in offensive weapons had been achieved, or so it seemed. Gunpowder had a few unpleasant characteristics, it was easily damaged by wetting, it gave off quantities of dense smoke, it could go off unexpectedly or not at all, but it was the best, the only, explosive man had devised.

Then, in about 1880, it began to be supplanted by “smokeless powder”, and later by more powerful explosives like TNT. These could be stuffed, in small quantities, into hollow “shells” to explode among the enemy, doing immense damage.

But from the day of Black Berthold’s discovery that the powder would fire guns, the making of “gunpowder” became a matter of national survival. Every nation had to have its stockpile, if not of gunpowder, then of its ingredients, much as nations haggle to-day about the possession of atomic weapons. Naturally occurring potassium nitrate, saltpetre, is a rare commodity, except in the soils of Spain and India, so most countries were forced to set up “nitre beds”, vast compost heaps where the stuff would form in decaying animal or vegetable matter. Farmers who already had these heaps found themselves having to hand over a proportion of the contents to their landlords: in Sweden, farmers paid their taxes with it.

Then, towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was discovered that “Chile saltpetre”, or sodium nitrate, which abounded in South America, could be converted to potassium nitrate by treatment with sulphuric acid: there was a mad rush to obtain concessions to mine it. Huge quantities were dug up and within a few years the supply was in measurable distance of being exhausted; but by now the European countries, realizing that it would be difficult to get adequate supplies in time of war, began to experiment with processes for the “fixation” of nitrogen gas from the air. The experiments were successful; the atmospheric nitrogen could be fixed into ammonia or nitric acid and used for the manufacture of all forms of explosive. This process is now of fundamental importance in making nitrogenous fertilizers for the soil.

Gunpowder, the first explosive, has had a greater effect on mankind than any of its more powerful successors, merely by being first. The Canadian Indians, when Champlain opened fire on them with his primitive “arquebus”, fled in screaming terror; the inhabitants of Madras did the same before Clive; the southern states of America, parts of South America, the whole of the West Indies, were peopled by unwilling Negroes from Africa, captured at gunpoint by the Arab slave traders. By the time TNT, ammonium nitrate, ammonal, dynamite, picric acid, guncotton had been developed, the “black art” of Berthold Schwartz had become universal: a Great War from 1914 to 1918 killed and maimed millions, and achieved nothing: the sides were too evenly matched.

A generation later, the war against Japan ended suddenly with the detonation of a totally different kind of explosive, an explosive which used, not the energy of a chemical reaction, but the vastly greater energy made available by the splitting of what had been universally accepted as the unsplittable, the smallest thing in existence. History repeated itself: here, until the rest of the world got hold of the secret, was a “gunpowder” with which one nation, had it been so minded, could have dominated the world. (Though even in 1945 the new weapon merely hastened the end of a long war which had already been won by “conventional” explosives.)

Unlike gunpowder and the other chemicals, the new atomic explosives, isotopes of uranium and hydrogen, have the power to destroy the world completely, eliminating in a few vast explosions, which would have been incredible even to the horrified discoverers of the Gunpowder Plot, the whole of mankind and his works. The threat is so great, and so obvious, that it may succeed in doing what gunpowder failed to do: stop war altogether.