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Artillery - Early History

The invention of gunpowder, and its application to throwing heavy bodies in a given direction, are now pretty generally conceded to have been of eastern origin. In China and India, saltpetre is the spontaneous excrescence of the soil, and, very naturally, the natives soon became acquainted with its properties. Fireworks made of mixtures of this salt with other combustible bodies were manufactured at a very early period in China, and used for purposes of war as well as for public festivities.

There is no information at what time the peculiar composition of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal became known, the explosive quality of which has given it such an immense importance. According to some Chinese chronicles, mentioned by M. Paravey in a report made to the French academy in 1850, guns were known as early as 618 BC; in other ancient Chinese writings, fire-balls projected from barnboo tubes, and a sort of exploding shell, are described. At all events, the use of gunpowder and cannon for warlike purposes does not appear to have been properly developed in the earlier periods of Chinese history, as the first authenticated instance of their extensive application is of a date as late as 1232, when the Chinese, besieged by the Mongols in Kai-fang-fu, defended themselves with cannon throwing stone balls, and used explosive shells, petards, and other fireworks based upon gunpowder.

The Hindus appear to have had some sort of warlike fireworks as early as the time of Alexander the Great, according to the evidence of the Greek writers AElian, Ctesias, Philostratus, and Themistius. This, however, certainly was not gunpowder, though saltpetre may have largely entered into its composition. In the Hindoo laws some sort of fire-arms appears to be alluded to; gunpowder is certainly mentioned in them, and, according to Prof. A. N. Wilson, its composition is described in old Hindoo medical works.

The first mention of cannon, however, coincides pretty nearly with the oldest ascertained positive date of its occurrence in China. Chased's poems, about 1200, speak of fire-engines throwing balls, the whistling of which was heard at the distance of 10 coss (1,500 yards). About 1258 there were reports of fireworks on carriages belonging to the king of Delhi. A hundred years later the use of artillery was general in India; and when the Portuguese arrived there, in 1498, they found the Indians as far advanced in the use of fire-arms as they themselves were.

From the Chinese and Hindus the Arabs received saltpetre and fireworks. Two of the Arabic names for saltpetre signify China salt, and China snow. Chinese red and white fire is mentioned by their ancient authors. Incendiary fireworks are also of a date almost contemporaneous with the great Arabic invasion of Asia and Africa. Not to mention the maujanitz, a somewhat mythical fire-arm said to have been known and used by Mohammed, it is certain that the Byzantine Greeks received the first knowledge of fireworks (afterward developed in the Greek fire) from their Arab enemies.

A writer of the 9th century, Marcus Gracchus, gives a composition of 6 parts of saltpetre, 2 of sulphur, 1 of coal, which comes very near to the correct composition of gunpowder. The latter is stated with sufficient exactness, and first of all European writers, by Roger Bacon, about 1216, in his Liber de Nullitate Magia, but yet for fully a hundred years the western nations remained ignorant of its use.

The Arabs, however, appear to have soon improved upon the knowledge they received from the Chinese. According to Conde's history of the Moors in Spain, guns were used, 1118, in the siege of Saragossa, and a culverin of 4 lb. calibre, among other guns, was cast in Spain in 1132. Abdel-Mumen is reported to have taken Mohadia, near Bona, in Algeria, with fire-arms, in 1156, and the following year Niebla, in Spain, was defended against the Castilians with fire-machines throwing bolts and stones. If the nature of the engines used by the Arabs in the 12th century remains still to be investigated, it is quite certain that in 1280 artillery was used against Cordova, and that by the beginning of the 14th century its knowledge had passed from the Arabs to the Spaniards.

Page last modified: 19-01-2019 18:38:05 Zulu