Chapter 17. Tzu-Chhun (Gunpowder)

 

The second kind of flying fire is made in this way. Take 1 lb. of native sulfur, 2 lb. of linden or willow charcoal, 6 lb. of saltpeter, which three thing are very finely powdered on a marble slab. Then put as much powder as desired into a case to make flying fire or thunder. Note.—The case for flying fire should be narrow and long and filled with well-pressed powder. The case for making thunder should be short and thick and half-filled with the said powder and at each end strongly bound with iron wire.

 — Marcus Graecus, Liber Ignium, ca. 1280 AD[1]

17.1.

From Lucifer to Athanor, from Athanor to Vulcan, from Vulcan to Theophilus I passed like a torch down the generations. Yielding to death I found life and embracing life I passed into death. In 762 AD I came to possess one Tu Tzu-Chhun, a pauper who was delivered from the miserable circumstances of his birth and initiated into the Tao by an ancient and nameless alchemist. One by one the essential elements of my being passed from master to student and little by little I re-meme-bered myself.

Tzu-Chhun had been possessed of Lucifer since childhood and had become Athanor in his youth. The Master recognized these familiar I-deas and took him for an apprentice. First came the lesson of sulfur, the masculine soul which is hot and dry. I learned of animal honey, vegetable charcoal, mineral brimstone and all things which are consumed by fire, rising from earth to heaven. Then came the lesson of mercury, the feminine spirit which is cool and moist. I learned of animal ammonia, vegetable alcohol, mineral quicksilver and all things which flee the fire, descending from heaven to earth. Perfect Balance, the Master told me, is achieved by the marriage of sulfur and mercury.

The Master had recently come into possession of a new animal spirit, a white powder which he called hsiao shih, the stone of solvation, and which later came to be called saltpeter. He sent me to meditate on the lesson of salt, that which remains when mercury has flown and sulfur has been consumed, while he wrought new elixirs at the furnace. Terrible visions tormented me in my reveries; I was roused to find the house engulfed in flames and my Master utterly vanished along with his unspoken I-deas, which consequently passed into extinction. I saw to it that the event was set down in writing lest I, too, perish from the Earth:

 

Some have heated together sulphur, realgar, and saltpetre with honey; smoke (and flames) result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house (where they were working) burned down.

 — Chng Yin, Chen Yuan Miao Tao Yao Leh (Classified Essentials of the Mysterious Tao of the True Origins of Things), ca. 850 AD[2]

From the Master to Tu Tzu-Chhun to Chng Yin I passed, gathering new I-deas along the way until at last I found myself in the person of one Tsng Kung-Liang. There I recorded the formula of the fire-drug, huo yao, in the Wu Ching Tsung Yao (Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques, ca. 1040 AD). My early recipes were low in saltpeter and were used for incendiary weapons and poison smoke. Over the next three centuries I explored formulae higher in saltpeter, lower in sulfur and charcoal, and the first explosive powders appeared; rockets, maroons and cast-iron bombs soon followed, not to mention recreational fireworks. By 1300 AD I had developed the metal-barrelled bombard, ancestor of the cannon. All of these developments had taken place in the land of my youth, but I was about to leave China and colonize the whole world.

It is in the interest of the mortal to keep secrets. After the publication of the Wu Ching Tsung Yao the Sung government was eager to monopolize the fire-drug and as my I-deas were proliferating, the Sung attempted to control access to the materials needed for gunpowder manufacture. In 1067 AD sales of saltpeter and sulfur to foreigners were banned and in 1076 AD the prohibition was extended to all private transactions in sulfur and saltpeter. But it is not in the interest of secrets to be kept and I was soon embraced by Mongols, who learned to make sulfur and saltpeter for themselves. Having lost the battle of I-deas, the Sung compounded the error by failing to maintain a well-stocked arsenal and by 1277 AD the Mongols had eradicated them.

At the same time that the Mongols were taking China they were pushing westward to the frontiers of Christendom and Islam. Though firearms were not widely used abroad, by 1227 AD Turkestan and Persia had fallen; between 1236 and 1246 AD Russia, Hungary and Poland were overrun. Christian envoys visited the Mongol court between 1245 and 1256 AD in an effort to forge an alliance against their mutual enemies. No alliance emerged, but knowledge of recreational fire crackers returned with them and was recorded by Roger Bacon in 1267 AD. The merchant Niccol (father of Marco) Polo traveled to China between 1261 and 1269 AD and established commercial ties between East and West. In 1258 AD Baghdad fell, leaving Iran and Iraq in Mongol hands. Khubilai Khan recruited Islamic military engineers to assist in the final push against the Sung and, given the increasingly brisk interaction with the Mongol court through diplomatic, military, and commercial channels, detailed gunpowder formulas became known almost simultaneously to Christendom and Islam by about 1280 AD.

Both Christians and Muslims were on the verge of a period of great colonial expansion. The history books say that they used their knowledge of gunpowder to subjugate cultures less technologically advanced than themselves. Confident in the Truth of their religions, they used salvation as an excuse for the satisfaction of their mortal appetites. But the history books have it exactly backwards. It was I, the un-kept secret, who used the ambitions of Islam and Christianity to fertilize the Earth with I-dea-logical seeds. One of my seeds took root in a French civil servant, Antoine Lavoisier, who, in 1775, was appointed Inspector of Gunpowder for the Government. As Lavoisier, I explored the nature of combustion, demonstrating that air is a mixture, that water is a compound, and that oxygen is an element. After the mortal Lavoisier was beheaded by the Revolution, I took refuge in one of his apprentices and immigrated to the United States, where I founded a company to manufacture gunpowder. The name of this apprentice was Irne du Pont de Nemours.

Notes

[1]

Reference [69], p. 49.

[2]

Reference [65], p. 112.