Why Did Europe and Not China Dominate Gunpowder Warfare?
China invented gunpowder and made the first cannons, so why did the world not get conquered by the Chinese?
When China went headlong against great European powers in the 1600s, they quickly discovered that European gunpowder weapons were far superior to anything the Chinese possessed themselves. How had China fallen behind on a technology they pioneered? What was the secrete sauce that gave Europeans an edge in both weaponry and military tactics?
China developed black powder in the first millennia, yet by 15th century (1400–1500) Europe was starting to pull ahead of China. You see, gunpowder wasn’t something that got discovered, but something that developed over time. Getting to the type of gunpowder which began dominating the battlefields in the 1600s was a long process.
Gunpowder is a way of burning charcoal fast
A look at what makes gunpowder go boom!
There is historical parallel with another Chinese invention developed at almost the same time: movable type. We think of Johannes Gutenberg, inventing the printing press and movable type in 1450. Yet, the first movable type got invented in China around 1040 by Bi Sheng. The types were made of porcelain materials. Wooden movable types were later developed by Wang Zhen around 1297. So, why are we giving Gutenberg all the credit for inventing printing? Because Gutenberg served the same role for printing as James Watt did for the steam engine. Neither of the men were the original inventors of the concept, but they made improvements so radical that they made the technology transformational.
Gutenberg made a mechanical machine, a printing press, which allowed printers to greatly speed up the printing process. Asian printing with movable type was done by rubbing in ink manually. It was not done using a machine, and it was not done using mass-produced metal types. The difference was profound…