Modern launch vehicles, including the recently retired space shuttle and the earlier Saturn V that took the first humans to the Moon, are among the most complex feats of engineering in human history. In the case of the Saturn V, the vehicle was longer than a football field and comprised of some 5,600,000 separate parts, all of which had to work perfectly to enable the rocket to carry out its mission. However, a large part of the complexity of the Apollo missions was in the extremely precise computerized sequencing of almost every mechanical, electrical, and other technical event throughout each mission in order to achieve the planned accuracies of soft landings on the surface of the Moon. The Apollo and space shuttle programs thus required multiple inventions, along with the modern management tools of systems and human factors engineering, to be successful. Of these multiple inventions, the basic rocket is undoubtedly the oldest: but was it really an invention?

The Apollo 11 Saturn V on the launch pad on July 1, 1969.

A closer examination of the earliest history of the basic rocket, a gunpowder-propelled device developed in China around 900 years ago, suggests that it originated as an accidental discovery rather than as a deliberately planned invention. Although we still do not know who first made the rocket, nor when nor how it was devised, there has been a long-held and commonly accepted belief that it originated in China during the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).

In determining the earliest reference to rocket devices in Chinese (or other) sources, investigators must be cautious in correctly interpreting early Chinese terminology, which can be ambiguous, or refer to changing technologies over time.

The use of “fei huo tsiang” by the Chinese against the Mongols during the siege of Kai-fung-fu in 1232 is often cited by historians as the first appearance of the rocket or, more particularly, the ”war rocket.“  But fie huo tsiang literally means “flying fire lances” and could have been no more than hand-thrown lances or spears with burning heads. To identify a true rocket-propelled device in the early texts, it must be unequivocally described as operating solely by self-propulsion. The question therefore has to be: Is the device clearly described as flying or moving by itself, either in the air or on the ground, without any assistance from a man or another device (like a bow or throwing stick)? Self-propulsion should be the only rigidly held criterion.

Using this standard, it is likely that the first rockets were not used in war, but rather as a form of entertainment. Descriptions of a simple type of firework are found in the Ch’in yeh-yu (Rustic Tales in Eastern Ch’i) by Chou Mi, dated to 1264. Called “ground rat” (ti lao shu) or “earth rat,” the device described is a self-propelled, ground-crawling firework. It was simply a tube, “probably of bamboo, filled with gunpowder and having a small orifice through which the gases could escape; then when lit, it shot about in all directions on the floor at firework displays.” According to Dr. Joseph Needham, author of Science & Civilization in China, The “ground rat” type of firework “may well have been the origin of rocket propulsion.”  

The Origins of Gunpowder

Gunpowder was discovered in China by Taoist alchemists, or religious philosophers who were employed by the emperor to search for an “elixir of longevity.” Needham and his colleagues found early accounts of the haphazard practice of the Taoist alchemists in which they occasionally had their beards singed, hands and faces burnt, and even the houses where they worked burned down when they ignited certain mixtures. These accidents suggest that, in their pursuit of life-prolonging medicines, they eventually stumbled upon the explosive concoction of gunpowder unintentionally.

For hundreds of years, and well into the 17th century, the traditional Chinese Taoist alchemical interpretation of the explosive property of gunpowder was regarded as the interaction of yin (female) and yang (male) values, a belief entirely in accord with the principles and practice of Taoism. Based upon this philosophy, it seems highly improbable that the essential ingredients of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal were deliberately brought together as a planned invention to form gunpowder, since the true chemical reaction of these ingredients upon ignition was hardly predictable.

Similarly, it was highly unlikely that the early Chinese “invented” the rocket from well-founded scientific principles. Rather, the ancient Chinese alchemists (by the 11th century), seeking an elixir for longevity, very likely “witnessed” the accidental discovery of the explosion of a proto-gunpowder. After continuous trial-and-error experiments, possibly over centuries, these alchemists arrived at true gunpowder and these empirical experiments may have further led to the accidental discovery of the rocket, perhaps when gunpowder was placed in a container, with one end closed: when accidentally lit, the container unexpectedly flew off by itself, due to what we would today explain as Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.”

Nonetheless, the Chinese continued their empirical experimentation, once the basic rocket had been “found” and were able to improve upon them, as well as upon fireworks and gunpowder weapons that eventually led to guns. The rocket also evolved thereafter in a purely empirical way, as did virtually all technologies before the Scientific Revolution began to produce an effective theory that could be applied to the process of invention.

As for the Taoist alchemists, the elusive elixir of longevity was never found, but their work lives on in multiple ways. For those who are shooting off fireworks this Fourth of July or just watching them on television via a satellite that was placed into orbit by a modern rocket, their accidental discovery endures today.


Fireworks and the full Moon on July 4th, 2012.  Composite image.



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