100 A.D.

First True Rockets

Just when the first true rockets appeared is unclear. Stories of early rocket-like devices appear sporadically throughout the historical records of many cultures. It is likely that the first true rocket flights were the result of accidents. In the third century B.C., the Chinese reportedly developed a simple form of gunpowder made from saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal dust. The powder was used to create explosions during religious festivals in order to frighten away evil spirits. Bamboo tubes were filled with the powder and tossed into fires. It may be that some of the tubes failed to explode and, instead, skittered out of the flames and along the ground, propelled by hot, leaking gases.

Early observations of such phenomena almost certainly led to more coordinated activity. The Chinese are known to have experimented with gunpowder-filled tubes of different designs. Among other things, they attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows, creating a device called the fire arrow. Fire arrows, having better range than ordinary arrows, eventually found their applications in battle. The Chinese also discovered that gunpowder tubes could be launched by simply igniting the powder and releasing the tube. The bow was not essential to getting the fire arrow aloft! Thus, the first true rockets were born.

The first recorded use of fire arrows occurred in 1045 A.D. An official named Tseng Kung-Liang wrote a complete account of the Chinese use of gunpowder called The Wu-ching Tsung-yao (Complete Compendium of Military Classics).

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