gunpowder, explosive mixture; its most common formula, called "black powder," is a combination of saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon in the form of charcoal. Historically, the relative amounts of the components have varied. An increase in the percentage of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) increases the speed of combustion. In the past gunpowder was widely used for blasting and for propelling bullets from guns but it has been largely replaced by more powerful explosives. Another form of powder containing potassium chlorate instead of the nitrate is commonly used in fireworks and in matches. The origin of gunpowder was probably Chinese, for it seems to have been known in China at least as early as the 9th cent. and was there used for making firecrackers. There is evidence suggesting that it came to Europe through the Arabs. Roger Bacon was long credited with inventing it because a formula for making it is given in a work attributed to him, and some German scholars have credited its invention to the alchemist-monk Berthold Schwarz. However, it is now generally agreed that gunpowder was introduced and not invented in Europe in the 14th cent. Its use revolutionized warfare and ultimately played a large part in the alteration of European patterns of living up until modern times. Gunpowder was the only explosive in wide use until the middle of the 19th cent., when it was superseded by nitroglycerine-based explosives.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.