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10 New Uses for Old Inventions


10
Gunpowder
Before it enlivened firecrackers and firearms, gunpowder was thought to be an elixir of immortality.
Before it enlivened firecrackers and firearms, gunpowder was thought to be an elixir of immortality.
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Gunpowder, a mixture of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur and charcoal, has powered fireworks and firearms since the 10th century. But before its big bang as a propelling charge, it started as a substance thought to have medicinal value. The Chinese were the first to toy with the volatile powder in the 8th century B.C. Unlike their Western counterparts, who were on a quest to manufacture gold from base metals, Chinese alchemists hoped to develop an elixir of immortality. They also used gunpowder as a treatment for skin diseases and as an insecticide [source: Robinson].

There's no record of how many people died trying to extend their lives. We do know, however, that a Taoist book from A.D. 850 featured the formula for black powder and warned readers of the dangers of working with the substance [source: Robinson]. Soon after, the Chinese and Arabs were using their elixir of immortality in devices designed to increase mortality, including crude guns made from bamboo tubes reinforced with iron that used a charge of black powder to shoot arrows.