The Quest for Gunpowder
Ancient China, home to one of the world’s four great civilizations, led the world in science and technology with the introduction of compass, paper, and gunpowder. Among other notable inventions, gunpowder, with its unmatched explosive properties, is considered one of the most innovative and groundbreaking forms of scientific creations that changed the history of mankind. Gunpowder was used in China since around the 10th century, but the manufacturing method of gunpowder was kept confidential. Many neighboring countries succumbed to the power of ancient China, thinking that discovering the formula for gunpowder was virtually impossible. But Choi Mu-Seon, a scientist from the late Goryeo Dynasty and early Joseon Dynasty, thought differently and eventually succeeded in inventing various gunpowder-based weapons.
The Agony and the Results
Choi Mu-Seon was born in 1325 in Yeongcheon, North Gyeongsang Province. His father was Choi Dong-Soon, the head official in the government in charge of paying wages to the workers by managing crops that were transported to the capital city via cargo vessels. At the time, the security of the nation was at stake, as Japanese raiders, armed with mobility and military powder, invaded Goryeo as often as 36 times in a given year. As a result, cargo vessels were frequently robbed by the pirates, preventing food and crops from flowing into the capital. Watching his father in grief, Choi Mu-Seon decided to try his hand at making gunpowder by experimenting with niter (mineral form of potassium nitrate), sulfur, and powdered coal.
Facing difficulties in extracting niter from the soil, Choi headed to a busy port located in the mouth of Yaesung River, which was frequently visited by the Chinese. By talking to Chinese merchants, Choi was able to figure out a way to prepare niter and tirelessly strived to invent gunpowder from the raw materials. After 20 years of research and experiment, Choi finally succeeded in developing his own effective way of obtaining niter. At first, Choi failed to get political support in putting the gunpowder into practical use, largely owing to resistance from a group of conservative Joseon ministers who doubted the military potential of the new weapon. After sincere and consistent efforts to persuade the dissenters, Choi was able to earn the support of the public and the government, which led to the establishment of the official laboratory for gunpowder in October of 1377.
Working as the chief researcher at the laboratory, Choi invented more than 50 different kinds of canon and firearms including the Juhwa, Korea’s very first rocket. In 1380, Choi’s inventions were used against the Japanese at the Battle of Jinpo. Thanks to the gunpowder-using weaponries, Goryeo forces with only about 100 warships successfully defeated an armada of 500 enemy ships, forever changing the history of naval battles.
After Choi retired from military affairs, he handed down his expertise to his son Choi Hae-San through written works. Choi is praised as the father of Korean science as his works laid the foundation for the renaissance of scientific developments using gunpowder, including the development of Singijeon, the first multi-launch rocket invented during the Joseon Dynasty under King Sejong the Great.