Gunpowder is, of course, used to fire guns. But it’s also used in fireworks. So it’s something you might well wish you’d invented.
Whizz Bang. Gunpowder, the first manufactured explosive, is a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. No one knows who invented it. The earliest mention of the substance, though it’s a bit vague, is in a book written by a Chinese alchemist called Wei Boyang from AD 142.
Ancient Chinese alchemists are known to have conducted many experiments in the search for eternal life, and it is thought, ironically, that gunpowder may have been discovered accidentally this way.
The Chinese first used gunpowder for fireworks. But by AD 904 it was being used to make ‘flying fires’ in warfare. Soon they were able to produce grenades, bombs and fire missiles using gunpowder.
We don’t know how gunpowder made its way from China around the world. It may have been invented independently in different places. The first mention of gunpowder in Europe was in 1216, when Roger Bacon wrote that it was possible to ‘compose artificially a fire that can be launched over long distances’.
By the end of the 13th century the Chinese were using gunpowder to fire their new invention, cannons. Since then gunpowder’s been used in different types of guns, bombs and mortars all over the world.
The Gunpowder Plot in which Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, may be one of the most famous uses of gunpowder. It used to be a criminal offense in England not to celebrate the capture of Guy Fawkes!
On 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes and his accomplices attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament while King James I and his sons were inside, The plot was uncovered and the traitors were rounded up and executed. Every 5 November since this event has been commemorated with a bonfire and the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes.
In fact, right up until 1959, there was a law in England stating that it was illegal NOT to celebrate Guy Fawkes night. You could be arrested for not celebrating!
In the days leading up to Bonfire Night, it used to be common practice for children to cart their Guys around from house to house, asking for a penny. It was also the custom to sing rhymes to commemorate the events of 5 November 1605. You have probably heard the rhyme below – or something like it.
GUNPOWDER, TREASON AND PLOT
Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s mercy he was catched
With a dark lantern and lighted match.
Holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King.
Make a Guy.
WHAT YOU NEED: an old jumper, an old pair of gloves, an old pair of trousers, an old pair of socks, an old pair of tights, string, straw, newspaper, a mask
Start by taking each item of clothing and filling it up with straw and newspaper. Fill the jumper, trousers, socks and gloves until they take on the shape of parts of the body.
Now attach the items. Pull the gloves over the ends of the arms of the jumper and tie them together with string. Do the same with the socks, pulling them over the bottom of the trousers and tying them.
Then take the two halves of your guy and pull the bottom of the jumper over the top of the trousers and tie them together for extra strength.
Finally, take the tights and fill one of the legs with straw and newspaper, fashioning it into a ball shape for his head. You can either draw a face straight on to the tights or you can make a paper mask of Guy (as shown) and attach it to the head. Secure the head to the body using string.
What else did you get up to on Bonfire Night?