Exploding flowers. Cascading fountains. Bursting comets. If you enjoy Fourth of July fireworks displays, thank the ancient Chinese. Fireworks are just one of the many inventions they developed. Separated from most of the world for centuries, the Chinese were innovative. Many items and processes used today come from ancient Chinese inventors.
Gunpowder was developed in China about A.D. 1000, and the Chinese were the first to use this technology in warfare. Researcher Robin Yates found a Chinese illustration of a cannon from about 1127. Gunpowder was also adapted for devices similar to flamethrowers, as well as for anti-personnel mines. As the Mongolians invaded China, they learned about gunpowder from captured Chinese artisans and adopted it for military purposes. This eventually brought the technology to the West.
The Printing Process
The Chinese developed a process for making paper about A.D. 105, and by the eighth century they were using it to press multiple prints of books using carved wooden blocks and ink. During the 11th century, Bi Sheng invented the first movable type printing press, using baked clay. A sturdier machine with wood movable type was created about 1297. Movable type was never as popular in China as it was in countries with limited alphabets, since it was not a practical method for printing the thousands of characters that were required for Chinese books. The invention made a tremendous impact in the West when German printer Johann Gutenberg produced the first machine-made Bible during the mid-15th century.
Help from Insects
The Chinese very likely produced the first silk fabric in the fourth millennium B.C. using cocoons spun by silkmoth larvae. To gather the thread, workers had to unwind the fine strands of the casing. They produced fabric that was light, strong and warm. In addition to fabric, silk was used as canvases for writing and painting. The silk trade reached Egypt by 1000 B.C., and by the first century B.C. it made its way to Rome, where its popularity soared. During the next century, some Roman writers worried that the empire would go broke because of the demand for luxury items like silks and spices.
Finding the Way Home
The earliest Chinese compasses, developed between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, were used to locate directions for cultural events such as burials, rather than for travel. That type of compass would not appear for centuries. Sometime during the seventh and eighth century, the Chinese discovered that iron needles could be turned into magnets by rubbing them with magnetite ore. By the 11th century, Chinese scholars discovered that magnetized iron needles could indicate true north. Early compasses were used by trading ships traveling west.
During the seventh or eighth century, Chinese artisans invented a process to make porcelain. The primary ingredients were clay or porcelain stone. The firing process varied by section of the country, resulting in different colors. Northern porcelain tended to be ivory colored, while southern products had a blue cast. Chinese porcelain was not brought to the West until the 16th century. It became fashionable, and during the first half of the 17th century over 3 million pieces were exported to Europe.
- Columbia University: Chinese Inventions: Can You Name Them?
- PBS: NOVA: China's Age of Invention
- Columbia University: Asia for Educators: Technological Advances During the Song
- Library of Congress: Gutenberg Bible
- University of Washington: Silk
- Smith College: Compass, China, 220 BCE
- British Museum: Chinese Porcelain
- University of Minnesota: The Porcelain Trade
- Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images