In a twist of explosive irony, gunpowder was invented, at least in part, in a search for the secret to eternal life. You read that right. Ancient alchemists concocted the explosive compound while pondering things they could ingest or perhaps smoke and inhale (who knows what they were thinking?).

Sometimes, practical inventions come from ambitious yet unrelated undertakings. The space program brought us artificial limbs, the Dustbuster, LASIK surgery, memory foam, baby formula ingredients, solar power cells, water filtration, invisible braces, and, regrettably, freeze-dried foods.

Details are sketchy, but some accounts refer to a Chinese alchemist mixing three powders, leading to violent combustion as early as 147 AD. Over the next few hundred years, saltpeter experimentation and production continued with efforts to purify other substances and create gold. You know, that old make infinite wealth from junk lying around chestnut.

Arguably, potassium nitrate is the part of gunpowder that yields the bang, and surprisingly, that ingredient has been in the experimental pot forever. The Nuniya & Labana caste in ancient India (early hundreds AD) used it to create noxious smoke and, according to legend, weaponized the fumes in battle to poison, or at least discourage, the enemy. One thing many saltpeter producers had in common was their attention to poop. Whether by bat guano, animal, or even human doo-doo, saltpeter production often relied on, well, you get the idea.

By the 9th century (give or take, remember, the history is a bit fuzzy), alchemists of the Tang Dynasty were engaged in an ambitious project to concoct an elixir of life. The experiments involved continued tinkering with potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter. As the substance proved volatile, it may have had the effect of shortening one’s expected lifespan rather than leading to the immortality sought.

Read the rest: A Brief History of Gunpowder: The Elixir of Life?