“Rocket science” is synonymous with intellectual complexity, but new research shows that rocketry owes its existence to baffled Chinese alchemists and a party trick that went horribly wrong.
Previous scholarship places the rocket’s origins in China during the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960-1279). The first known use of the military rocket occurred in 1232 when the Chinese used fei huo tsiang (flying fire lances) against Mongols besieging the city of Kai-fung-fu.
But that weapon didn’t come out of the blue, and scholars have long craved details about its development. Who invented the first rocket and the gunpowder that fueled it? Was the rocket conceived from the very beginning as a weapon? Did the Chinese master the scientific principles of combustion and propulsion centuries before the West?
To find out, Frank Winter, former curator of rockets at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and now an independent scholar, along with the museum’s Michael Neufeld and Kerrie Dougherty of the Powerhouse Museum in Australia, scoured historical scholarship—a challenging task due to the ambiguous terminology for early projectiles. For instance, the term huo chien (fire arrow) was used by Chinese writers to describe both an ordinary arrow tipped with an incendiary device and a “true rocket,” which Winter, Neufeld and Dougherty define as a device operating solely by self-propulsion.
The researchers discovered that the first rocket to meet this essential criterion was not, in fact, an aerial projectile but the more humble ti lao shu (ground rat), a firework made from a bamboo tube filled with gunpowder that shot about in all directions on the floor. The device first appeared in the late 12th century and was described in a book titled Ch’in yeh-yu (Rustic Tales in Eastern Ch’i). During a royal banquet in the 13th century, the wife of Emperor Li Chung was terrified when a ground rat scurried beneath her chair. The festivities abruptly ended and those responsible for the firework display were imprisoned.
Winter and his colleagues believe that Taoist alchemists had discovered the recipe for gunpowder while searching for nothing less than the formula for immortality. Viewing the natural world as an interplay of yin (passive) and yang (active) forces, they haphazardly mixed and heated yin and yang components and observed the results.
Which often blew up in their faces. Accounts from the ninth century mention singed beards and burned-down houses. Centuries of trial and error refined the gunpowder formula, and alchemists likely stumbled upon the property of propulsion. In that sense, Winter says, the alchemists didn’t deliberately invent the rocket but rather witnessed its birth.
Still, the Chinese innovated. In ensuing years they crafted two-stage rockets, rocket launchers and rockets that exploded on impact. Even the ground rat found its way onto the battlefield: It spooked enemy cavalry as effectively as it frightened an empress.