I guess most are familiar with the cartoonish "bomb icon". It is used to warn of metaphorical or literal explosive danger and shows a deep black sphere with a smaller cylinder attached. That is where the burning fuse starts.

(created by Wikimedia Commons User Nevit Dilmen, license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

I wonder if a historical background exists? When where bombs like these used in warfare and what is the origin of this symbol?

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    well, some of us are old enough that we are actually more familiar with this image from Mad Magazine's Spy vs. Spy
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 13:39

3 Answers 3


Early hand grenades looked like that:

The word "grenade" originated in the Glorious Revolution (1688), where cricket ball-sized iron spheres packed with gunpowder and fitted with slow-burning wicks were first used against the Jacobites in the battles of Killiecrankie and Glen Shiel

Specimen made from glass, French, ca. 1740 (Specimen made from glass, French, ca. 1740)

  • Well there you have it!
    – Mkalafut
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 16:26
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    I'd add that this doesn't neccessarily mean "ancient bomb", as similar hand grenades were used even in WW1 before getting replaced with chemical fuses. E.g. Besozzi grenade such as seen at images-02.delcampe-static.net/img_large/auction/000/151/676/…
    – Peteris
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 9:45
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    @HOtten what did you expect a real version of a bomb to be used for? Mashing potatoes? :)
    – ANeves
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 11:26
  • 6
    Well, they did call some of them potato mashers... ;) Commented May 22, 2014 at 14:21
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    @ANeves a bit late, but civil engineering? construction / destruction work? mining?
    – tbrugere
    Commented Dec 7, 2021 at 22:47

The grenades in Michael Borgwardt's answer are probably the earliest European examples, but in China they go much further back.
Fireworks based on a bamboo, clay or paper shell filled with an explosive mixture (a precursor of gunpowder) came into use as far back as around 600-700 BC (Tang Dynasty).

The Chinese kept improving fireworks and also developed bombs (in this shape) and rockets which culminated in the invention of classic gunpowder (black powder) around 1100 AD.

Eventually the stuff ended up in Europe through the Silk Road trade. That happened with early fireworks already in Roman times as archeological digs (the Pompeii museum displays some) have shown.

Also: The ancient Greeks already used a substance called "Greek fire" which was a highly flammable (to the point of being a weak explosive) pitch, resin and oil based mixture. Most likely it also had magnesium salts in it.
They would put it in jars which were thrown at enemy ships during combat. Fire-arrows would ignite the stuff.
They didn't use fuses. The stuff was dangerous enough without them if a sailor dropped a jar near his own brazier which he used for lighting the arrows.
Although not quite the same thing they are a bit similar to the classic cartoon-bomb.

  • 4
    Good answer. I am obliged to "badger you for sources"; sources are essential for excellent answers
    – MCW
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 21:11
  • @MarkC.Wallace For the Chinese fireworks stuff: Wikipedia and several "history of pyrotechnics" websites. I researched this last year for a friend who doesn't speak English and had a hard time finding info in any of the languages he does understand. The info stuck, but I don't have exact links at this time. The Roman/Greek stuff I've got from various museum visits.
    – Tonny
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 21:32
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    Just a small amendment: although I understand that incendiaries were used in Eurasian warfare prior to this, 'Greek Fire' itself was a contrivance of the Byzantines, I think in the 7th century AD. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire#History
    – 568ml
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 8:25
  • @568ml I clearly recall a museum-guide in Athens telling me that the true Greek fire recipe was indeed Byzantine, but that crude early versions of it were already in use by the Minoan and Phoenician navies. There is also this story of the defenders of the Greek colony Syracuse using Greek fire like incendiaries against the invading Roman galleons. That would be 212 BC. (Archimedes died that day. It is a famous story.)
    – Tonny
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 10:02

Smoothbore cannon (of the type used at Waterloo, or in Pirates of the Caribbean) were capable of firing solid shot (a spherical lump of iron or similar) or explosive shells, as well as canister, chain-shot, etc..

The explosive shell was originally a spherical shell, filled with explosive, and with a fuse. The fuse was intended to be lit when the shell was propelled -- by the explosion of gunpowder -- out of the cannon.

Thus, you'd have exactly what you describe: a spherical bomb, with a burning fuse sticking out of it.

You can read more on Wikipedia: Shell (projectile) and Artillery fuse.

  • Interestingly, this is (I believe) where the word shrapnel comes from. The shell you reference was used by the British at Waterloo and was called the "Shrapnell" after it's inventor, Henry Shrapnell.
    – Kobunite
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 9:31
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    Not quite. The shell that Henry Shrapnel (one L) invented (a development from the explosive shell) was a thin case around a collection of musket balls, with an explosive charge at the centre. Would've looked similar, though, with the fuse sticking out. Commented May 20, 2014 at 9:39
  • For the purposes of this question -- round thing with a fuse sticking out of it -- chain shot and canister are irrelevant, but I've updated the answer anyway. Commented May 20, 2014 at 10:40
  • Fair enough! I was under the impression that smoothbore cannon's only exploding shell was the Shrapnel Shell and the Howitzer fired other types of exploding shell. My bad. :-)
    – Kobunite
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 10:49
  • Interresting. I knew about incendiaries, chain-shot and scrap-metal loaded into cannons, but fused bombs... That is a knew one to me.
    – Tonny
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 20:00

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