Monday, July 03, 2006

origins of gunpowder

i thought this was funny
Justin P., Smith Center, KS

Our story begins with a small-in- stature, humble, Buddhist monk named Foo (later lengthened to Foomp, but only after he discovered the explosive qualities of black powder). For the most part, Foo was a normal monk. He meditated, ate bread, drank water, and occasionally he even breathed. This was about all a Buddhist monk could do in his search to be pure. Anything more radical would be considered an unpardonable sin. As time went on Foo became rather bored with his meager existence and took up gardening. This pastime was looked upon as extremist. Foo was allowed to stay at the monastery simply because he was the only monk who could bake a decent loaf of bread. The fact that Foo took up gardening may seem rather insignificant, but it became the sole reason he invented black powder.

By and by Foo noticed his garden was not doing so hot; namely, his plants were shriveling up and dying. This phenomenon can probably be explained by Foo's incessant reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self Reliance to his plants. Recent scientific studies have shown that continuous reading of this literature (if it can be called that) has a shriveling, withering effect on humans. Scientists have reason to believe it would have the same effect on plants. At the time, though, Foo had no knowledge of this study, so he deduced his problem to be lack of fertilizer. Immediately, he took steps to remedy this predicament.

It is also a well-known fact that with a large amount of spare time on their hands, monks occasionally dabbled in science. This was another extremist pastime, but was allowed because, without it, the monks would have no bread. All the scientific findings of previous monks were compiled in the monastery library. This library was where Foo began his search for a decent fertilizer formula. Foo's search led him to an abundant source of fertilizer in the caves surrounding the monastery: bat guano. Foo raced off to the caves to gather the guano and save his garden.

While gathering guano, Foo noticed some funny, white, crystalline forms in the guano. Scientists have since identified them as potassium nitrate, which often takes up residence in caves (as does guano). Foo did not know about potassium nitrate at the time, and no funny, white specks were going to get in the way of his fertilizer. Foo threw them into the pail with the guano.

When Foo arrived back at the monastery, he searched for a suitable place to crush and mix his fertilizer. The fireplace was the logical answer, since the leftover guano could also be used as fuel. Foo heaved the guano into the fireplace to rest with the already existing charcoal. As the mixing process neared an end, Foo noticed that his fertilizer was a drab, dull black. Foo decided that the addition of some powdered, bright yellow rocks he had found in the cave would liven the mixture up a little and give it some character. The yellow rocks were later identified as sulfur. For those who have flunked high school chemistry, the mixture of three equal parts of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal is commonly called "black powder." Foo, of course, had not taken chemistry so he did not know this. After a thorough mixing, Foo liquefied the mess - uuuhhh, fertilizer - for ease in spreading, and headed for his garden.

Foo became so caught up in baking and meditating that he did not make it back to his garden for a week. What he found threw him into a fit of rage (an emotion monks were never supposed to reveal, and which led to the first testing of black powder). What Foo had expected to become a green, luscious garden was now a flat, black mat of a grainy substance. In his enraged state, Foo lost all control and set his garden on fire. Mayhem erupted, with a loud foooommmppppp!! Foo's garden disappeared in an acrid cloud of smoke. What became the first testing of black powder also became the first controlled burn. This led to the first EPA regulations and burning bans, and also the first sighting of Smokey the Bear. Finally, it became the basis for use of explosives in terrorism.

The other monks were definitely terrorized and unhappy with Foo. His garden had been viewed as radical in the first place. In an attempt to save face, Foo also invented the first fib. He came up with a story about seeing an orange U-Haul truck parked beside his garden just before it blew.

Foo's story did not help. He was eventually expelled from the monastery and became a vagabond and mercenary under the alias Foomp. IRA and PLO scouts were sent to check him out. He eventually went to Ghengis Khan as a second-round draft pick. With Ghengis, Foomp perfected the black powder and named it explosewoo batfu popoowong, which translates to explosive bat poop in Chinese. In English the name translates into a more tame version: black powder. And that is the story of how it was invented and developed by a humble Chinese monk. 1

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