Nearly two thousand years ■*

ago—at least as early as the second century—Chinese doctors and alchemists (who experimented with chemicals) were mixing sulfur and saltpeter to create medicines that might cure ills and prolong human life. Bright yellow crystals of sulfur were easy to find, occurring naturally around volcanoes and hot springs. Saltpeter, a white, crystalline substance, was readily available too. It could be collected from the floors and walls of caves.

Saltpeter is a kind of salt formed from excrement, such as bat droppings, and decaying vegetation. Nitrogen compounds produced by the decay are dissolved by rainwater and deposited on surfaces in the form of white crystals. It is called saltpeter, or stone salt, because it is a salty substance found on or within rocks (peter is from the Latin word for "rock"). Raw saltpeter can be purified by boiling. This allows unwanted material to be skimmed off the top. One of the earliest uses of saltpeter may have been in the curing of meats to help prevent spoilage. In fact, saltpeter is still being used for this.

The Chinese invented rockets nearly two thousand years ago and were the first to use them in warfare. The 1950s painting by Jack Coggins (top) and the

Ancient humans discovered that wood Chinese art below it show soaked in a saltpeter solution and then allowed early rockets.

to dry would burn much more quickly than ordinary wood. Tinder made from shredded wood or dried fungus saturated with saltpeter made an excellent and reliable fire starter. This was probably a chance discovery, made when a piece of wood used for stirring a solution of boiling saltpeter accidentally fell into a fire. Someone may have noticed that it burned faster and brighter than plain wood.

Chinese alchemists such as Chen Yuan (a.d. 220-300) were careful while heating mixtures containing saltpeter. Careless experimenters had been badly hurt and houses even burned to the ground after heating a mixture of saltpeter, realgar (arsenic sulfide), sulfur, and honey. Eventually, experimenters realized that if this mixture were ignited intentionally rather than accidentally, it was actually fun to watch it burn.

Soon someone discovered that if the quick-burning mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal—the ingredients of gunpowder—were tightly encased in a tube of thick paper or inside a section of bamboo, it would explode with a loud bang. While gunpowder is believed to have been developed very early, the first clear references to it are found in Chinese books written between the seventh and twelfth centuries. For example, the early alchemist Ch'ing Hau-Tzu reported setting fire to a mixture containing saltpeter and sulfur.

By the tenth century, special words had been coined to describe firecrackers and fireworks. By the end of that century, fireworks had become widely popular as entertainment. Still, the earliest Chinese name for gunpowder, huo yao, which means "fire drug," may have reflected its original use as a medicine.

The Chinese military quickly realized the potential of the new substance. By the eleventh century, the proper proportions of the ingredients had been calculated (they were hardly different from those used in modern gunpowder). Its explosive power had become well known.

Most military applications of gunpowder were limited to launching projectiles and setting fire to enemy towns and fortifications. "Fire arrows" were widely used to "burn down the wood, straw, and catapults of the enemy." These were not rockets, however. They were usually ordinary arrows that had small explosive charges attached to their tips. Fuses were attached to these explosive charges and lit. Then the arrows were launched toward the enemy.

Rockets were most likely invented accidentally when a poorly made firecracker didn't explode and, instead, allowed a jet of gas to escape from one end. This caused the firecracker to suddenly fly forward. This was probably first used for amusement, just as fireworks were originally used.

This nineteenth-century Chinese watercolor painting shows rocket makers at work.

One popular firework was called the ground rat (ti lao shu). It was designed to race across the ground in an unpredictable course. A story from China's Ming dynasty tells how, in 1419, a group of visiting Persians were entertained. On Lantern Festival Day, ground rats raced around, lighting the thousands of lanterns on display.

Another story of the fiery ground rat occurred one hundred years earlier and was considerably more amusing. "During the royal banquet in the palace," reported a historian during the Southern Sung dynasty, "the Empress-Dowager was entertained by the Emperor Li-Chung with 'yen huo' fired in the court. Suddenly a 'ground rat' ran quickly to the Dowager and went beneath her chair. She was so frightened and angered, that the banquet was called off. Those responsible were put in jail, and the Emperor apologized."

The First Rockets

One of the earliest mentions of rockets in Chinese literature is in Ching Shih (History of the Ching Dynasty). This book, written in 1345, declares that perhaps the first practical use of the rocket was made in Kai-fung-fu in 1232. The city was under siege by Mongols, who were unpleasantly surprised by two new weapons. The first was an explosive bomb dropped from the top of the city walls. The other was called fe-ee-ho-tsiang, or "arrow of flying fire." These rockets carried warheads containing an

Fire arrows (huo chien) and a fire lance (huo tsang) from a seventeenth-century Chinese book: (A) a fire arrow and the incendiary device it carried, (B) a fire arrow with the incendiary device attached, (C) a fire lance with two flame ejectors attached
Battle Kai Fung China
This 1952 watercolor painting by Jack Coggins shows the first recorded use of rockets in warfare. It occurred in A.D. 1232 at the battle of Kai-fung-fu. The city was under siege by Mongols, who were repulsed when the Chinese used rockets against them.

inflammable substance that would explode over a wide area on impact. The rocket itself must have been invented much earlier, however, for such an advanced version to be available at that date and for the Chinese soldiers to be so skilled in its use.

No one knows exactly what these first rockets looked like. They

Chinese rocket arrows were probably ordinary arrows with rockets attached, since pictures of later rockets were shown to look like this. Even as late as the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese fireworks rockets would often have feathers attached to the ends of their sticks. This was a carryover from their ancient origins as fire arrows. (It was also a useless one too, since the exhaust of the rocket probably quickly burned away the feathers.)

Early rockets could not be aimed with any sort of accuracy. Once they were launched, they pretty much went where they pleased. But by launching hundreds all at the same time, the Chinese were assured of having at least some effect on their enemies. The sight and sound of masses of flaming rockets arching through the air and exploding everywhere must have been terrifying.

Soon the secret of the new weapon leaked out. For example, the Syrian scholar Hassan al-Rammah wrote a book in the thirteenth century that not only contained recipes for gunpowder but instructions for making rockets, as well. He called these alsichem alkhatai, or "Chinese arrows." Hassan's book also contained what may have been an original design by the author for a An ancient Chinese drawing shows fire brand-new war rocket. He arrows being launched by soldiers.

Flying Fire Ancient Chinese

described it as a "self-moving and combusting egg." It consisted of a kind of flying-saucer shape with two sticks protruding from the rear rim, each with a tail on the end.

The Rocket Reaches the West

Both gunpowder and rockets had made their way to Europe even before al-Rammah wrote his book. The English monk Roger Bacon was one of the first to describe and write about them. In a book written around 1249, Bacon included instructions for making gunpowder and rockets. Yet, he used a code that kept many people from learning the secret.

Just as had occurred in China, the first use for gunpowder was amusement. The first rockets were created for elaborate fireworks displays, which quickly became popular among the royalty of Europe. So popular, in fact, that many courts appointed official royal pyrotechni-cians to design and execute the displays. The Italian Ruggieri family, for instance, provided pyrotechnicans for the royal houses of Europe for many generations.

Rockets were quickly adapted by the military as warfare as early as 1258. They were used successfully in the battle for the Isle of Chiozza in Italy in 1379. One historian's description of the siege described the new weapon as a rocchetta. This is the Italian word for a "small spindle," which rockets resembled. The modern English word rocket is derived from this.

The German military engineer, Konrad Kyeser von Eichstadtt, described three types of rockets in his book Bellifortis (1405). He mentioned those that rise vertically like skyrockets, those that float on water, and those that run along taut strings. A book of drawings kept by the Italian engineer Joanes de Fontana contained designs for a large number of rockets. Some of these may have actually been con structed, but most probably never got off the drawing board. They included rocket cars that ran along the ground, meant to set fire to enemy fortifications, and rocket-powered torpedoes to be used against ships.

Other writers from around this time had more practical ideas. For example, Jean Froissart (who died around 1410) suggested that rockets might be more accurate if they were shot from tubes. This method is still used. Others suggested that rockets be equipped with parachutes.

By the first decades of the seventeenth century, rockets were used less by the military. The rocket was more or less relegated to playing a relatively small role—as entertaining fireworks displays. (But at sea, however, sailors used rockets for sending signals and

This image is from a book on pyrotechnics that was published in Germany in 1630. It shows a rocketeer taking aim at his target.

This French illustration depicts one of the official rocketeers belonging to the seventeenth-century court of Louis XIV of France.

pirates used them to set fire to other ships.)

But even if the military was losing interest in the rocket as a weapon in favor of the much more reliable and powerful cannon and handgun, the rocket still had its enthusiastic proponents. In 1668 Colonel Christoph Friedrich von Geissler, a commander of field artillery in Saxony (then a region of northern Germany) and Poland, conducted his own secret experiments with rockets. His rockets were very large for the time, weighing from 55 to 132 pounds (25 to 60 kilograms). They were made of wood covered with canvas soaked in glue. They were propelled by specially made gunpowder and carried a 16-pound (7 kg) warhead. The exhaust from these impressive rockets blasted a deep hole in the ground at takeoff.

Geissler published the results of his experiments in a book. It inspired a large number of people to perform their own experiments. Rockets grew ever larger and heavier, with 100-pound (45 kg) rockets being built by 1730. Experiments were also made to improve the gunpowder propellant. Many different proportions of the ingredients

This French illustration depicts one of the official rocketeers belonging to the seventeenth-century court of Louis XIV of France.

This French diagram shows the art of rocket making as it was in 1747. The skyrockets of today are made with techniques not much different from those employed hundreds of years ago.

This French diagram shows the art of rocket making as it was in 1747. The skyrockets of today are made with techniques not much different from those employed hundreds of years ago.

were tried. As one observer reported, "The rocket case weighed 33 lbs [15 kg], the charge 23 lbs [10 kg], the guiding stick 33 lbs [15 kg] and the cap and payload 4 lbs [1.8 kg], the whole rocket, therefore, 93 lbs [42 kg]. It rose to an extremely high altitude."

As successful and interesting as these experiments were, they still did not convince the military that the rocket had a serious future as a weapon. It took an embarrassing military defeat to do that.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment