In this SciFi SE answer to "Can we date the technology in the Lord of the Rings movies?" , I made a statement that I wasn't able to research as fully as I'd have liked, and therefore would like a confirmation of whether historical research supports it.

Gunpowder used to blow up the wall at Helm's Deep - the earliest invention is in China, 6th to 9th century. But it was not used for explosives back then IIRC - the first mention of the use of black powder for explosives I could find was Dicovery Channel's (un-cited) mention of 12th century in China. The first use of black powder as explosive (as opposed to projectile propellant) in Europe eludes me but it wasn't used for civilian purposes (mining explosives) till 17th century.

So, the questions are:

  1. Is there a confirmed source indicating the use of black powder for military purpose explosives as early as 12th century AD in China (as in, to blow stuff up instead of to propel something)? Are there no references to earlier use?

  2. What was the earliest confirmed such use in Europe? (other regions matter less since Isengard seems to be a Europe equivalent in Tolkien kinda-geography, situated north of Gondor)

As Lennart correctly surmised, I was thinking of the use of black powder for demolition type effect (as was done in LOTR), NOT as an explosive in a shrapnel-producing grenade/bomb.

4 Answers 4


The first "blowing up" of anything is the blowing up of bombs. This did happen in China in the 12th century (Science and civilisation in China, Volume 5, Part 7 By Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, Ling Wang). But that's not really what you mean, you mean using gunpowder to blow up things that are not weapons. The damage from these early bombs is more from shrapnel than from the explosive power of the bomb itself, I suspect.

Needham also mentions an "enourmous bomb" used to repel the Mongols in 1277. This is probably similar to what the 14th century manual "Huolongjing" (Fire Dragon Manual) describes in various land and sea mines, but without the trigger mechanisms that they used by the 14th century.

I think the Helms Deep explosion could reasonably be seen as something similar to this 1277 "enourmous bomb". The Chinese knew about making small bombs that were thrown with trebuchets. That somebody comes up with the idea of super-sizing it is not surprising, and the same would go for the Tolkien Universe.

The first case I know of blowing things up (or trying to) in Europe with gunpowder is of course the 1605 gunpowder plot. There may be others.

  • oups. The bad tags were left over from a draft of another question that somehow Firefox+SE remembered, and I didn't realize were left over. Thanks for editing. Excellent answer, +1!
    – DVK
    Commented Nov 25, 2011 at 23:32

Also, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley had his house blown up by his wife, Mary Queen of Scotts - after he stabbed her handsome continental boy-toy in front of her -

"She brought him to Kirk O'Field with the [stated] intention of incorporating him into the court system again. Darnley stayed in Edinburgh while Mary attended the wedding of one of her friends. Around 2 am on the night of February 10, 1567, while Mary was away, two explosions rocked the foundation of Kirk O'Field. These explosions were later attributed to two barrels of gun powder that had been placed in the small room under Lord Darnley's sleeping quarters."

Since that didn't do the trick, her conspirators strangled him, dumped him in the woods, and framed Blackadder for it.

No, really.

  • @Luke - Re-read the question. Carefully. Actually, not that carefully, just find the second bullet point. If you can beat 1567 in Europe please do. Commented Aug 2, 2012 at 22:13
  • 1
    Whoops didn't catch that. Sorry. +1
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 1:31

(For a mobile bomb see Swamp Yankee's answer)

The first reliable documented use of engineering explosives was at the Siege of Serezenella (1487) by the Genoese. The chief engineer of the Genoese, Pietro Navarro, a Spaniard, was the designer. He also mined the Castle of the Egg (Castel dell' Ova) at Naples (1503), when he was serving with the Spanish. Reportedly the early use was not decisive, but at the Castle of the Egg, an explosive mine was the key factor in the success of a siege for the first time. For this reason explosive mining is normally dated as beginning in that year, 1503.


Henry of Navarre first made use of the petard in 1580. This predates rock blasting at quarries in Hungary, which is otherwise the first use of gunpowder to blow something up in Europe. (Fawkes failed, if you recall.)

While it does require a metal "bell" to direct the blast, the purpose of the petard is to knock a hole in a structure rather than to shoot a projectile, so I think it counts by your criteria.

  • 2
    I have a Brit co-worker who is fond of saying that Guy Fawkes was the only person to ever enter Parliment with honest intentions. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 22:07
  • I second this answer. The question is not about guns, it is about explosives, and there is no question the first viable and useful military use of an explosive was the petard, developed by the French under Henry of Navarre, and first used in 1579. Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 15:33

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