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There are many people on the internet claiming that India discovered/ invented gunpowder for eg, many of these claims quote Dr. Gustav Oppart (acs.org, and see below). Wikipedia says that gunpowder was most likely invented in China.

The use of Gunpowder in matchlocks proliferated in the middle ages. Ancient Indians used Saltpetre (Agnichurna) in mining and warfare. It was already mentioned by Kautilya in Arthashastra as a weapon of war (4th century BC). Sandith

Gunpowder or black powder is of great historical importance in chemistry. Although it can explode, its principal use is as a propellant. Gunpowder was invented by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century. Thoughtco.com

What is the actual truth?

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    I concur with @T.E.D below; this question has been asked multiple times, clearly it is of interest, and there is more to it than I first thought. The answer below (IMHO) significantly illuminates. I think that it is worth reopening (potentially revising) an imperfect question as a community resource.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 18:16

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This confusion is A Thing. I actually looked into it a few weeks back.

Its quite likely that ancient Indians were the first people to harvest and make use of saltpeter. We certainly haven't found definitive record of anyone doing so earlier. It was mentioned in The Arthashastra, which was compiled between -300 and 300. Saltpeter is a great fertilizer, and the Gupta Empire encompassed two of the worlds most fertile river valleys, so this would certainly have been its primary use. The military use they reported putting it to was limited to burning it to produce a noxious gas.

Saltpeter is a component of gunpowder, but it is not the only component. The process to produce gunpowder involves the use of saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon. So gunpowder and saltpeter are not the same thing, in roughly the same way that flour and a blueberry pie are not the same thing.

The earliest reference we have to something like gunpowder is from alchemist Wei Boyang of the Eastern Han in 142 AD. We don't know if he invented gunpowder, or just documented it. There are several more mentions of it from Chinese sources over the centuries, but the first in a military context is from a Chinese military manual in 1044.


Now on some level one can understand the confusion here, as not everybody has the level of chemical knowledge to know the difference between saltpeter and gunpowder. However, if most of the sources making this mistake come from people who share a political motivation, one starts to ponder the line between incompetence and malice. Either way, its good mental hygiene to avoid information sources prone to making such errors without ever correcting them.

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Historians largely agree that gunpowder originated in China although the evidence is slim and others India and Sri Lanka for instance have a tenable claim. All have natural resources of the essential ingredients that were not readily available in the west at that time. However explanations of how the ingredients came to be combined in the ratio needed to produce gunpowder are far from convincing. There is a credible argument that gunpowder was not "invented" but evolved from previous technologies by a series of simple steps. This explains the difficulty of assigning a date to the origin. https://www.academia.edu/10603213/The_Pre_History_of_gunpowder

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  • You make a good point that the concept of "invented" is itself slippery and not always clearly applicable to pre-modern times, since much "invention" (even in modern times) is a long, evolutionary process starting with A and ending with Z and with no one person or group really having invented Z. It's also worth remembering that in a world with terrible communication and poor historical records, even if Alpha invented gunpowder, Eta and Zeta may have -- much later -- have independently invented it. The nuances in this question are as thick as the leaves in my October yard.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 15:00
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    I am a scientist, not a historian. I have posited a reasonable thesis based on the known facts and backed by a post grad diploma in development of technologies. The paper has been presented to the Newcomen Society and at several academic lectures and well received. I would be happy to debate any specific points in the paper. Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 16:27

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