Thursday, April 7, 2011

TT: Chinese Rockets

Extant drawing of a dragon-headed multi-stage rocket (Grandhistorian)

I'm going to tell you all a secret: Imperial China invented A LOT of things. No, seriously. I would make a list, but I fear that that would be a blog within itself (if someone wants to take that and run with it, feel free). A few of my favorites include sunglasses (used as early as 1000 C.E. by Imperial judges who wanted to appear unemotional and impartial at trials), the collapsible umbrella (1st century C.E. for use on the chariots of political bigwigs), and the landmine (3rd century C.E., for... well... same use as always- blowing people and things into wee tiny bits). Then of course there was the mechanized water clock invented by a Buddhist monk to regulate the Emperor's sex life...

.... the man had a LOT of concubines.

A lot of these groundbreaking technologies were developed centuries before the Age of Steam- so why bring them up? Well, if something like a rudimentary rocket was in use on the battlefield as early as the 13th century C.E., just imagine how advanced it would be with the industrial and technological explosion that a steampunk age would offer?  But before we ponder that, why don't we look at this simple, yet inevitably complicated invention: the rocket.

I know, I know- it looks a little more Wile E. Coyote than devastating, but let's see you do better in the 13th century.
Of course, without gunpowder there would be no rockets (in China, at least- it's been rumored that the scientists of Ptolemaic Alexandria were developing steam-powered devices similar to rockets). The simple combination of carbon, sulfur, saltpetre, and honey was described by Taoist alchemists in the 9th century C.E., probably looking for the elusive Elixir of Life. Rather than write this crazy explosive substance off, the Chinese decided to harness it for use in religious and social spectacles (hooray fireworks!), war, and medicinal concoctions.

Ballistics was a series of simple concepts: 1. Gunpowder explodes. 2. The angle by which gunpowder explodes can be controlled. 3. Much of the world is flammable. Chinese rockets were originally a system for augmenting the propulsion and intimidation of arrows- in fact, in Chinese "fire arrow" and "rocket" are the same word. The first ones were a lot more arrow than rocket, with a bamboo tube of gunpowder serving as the propellant. When lit and shot, these arrows would streak through the sky with great speed and brilliance; scaring the ever-loving tar out their opponents (in this case, the Mongols).

A modern drawing of a flying fire cannon (cultural china)

By the 14th century, more sophisticated multi-staged rockets were developed that were known as flying fire cannons. These devices were propelled by a series of smaller rockets (similar in simplicity to the original 13th century ones) to propell the canister (made from lightweight wood with dragon or monster's heads carved into the front) over far distances. When the smaller propulsion rockets ran through, they would light the tails of the fuses of several more fire arrows inside of the canister- which would keep the rocket moving long enough to release a shower of arrows out of the dragon's mouth. One variety of this cannon commonly held nine of these payload arrows.

Later advancements would include long-range boosters made from charges of gunpowder and massive multi-shot rockets made by combining bundles of fire arrows and cannons together so that they flew cases of arrows towards the enemies- that exploded over the enemy. (I like to call it the "Cabinet of Doom", because that's what extant plans for it look like. Quite devastating, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries. It should also be noted to some of you folks out there that these technologies were used (quite successfully, might I add) fighting pirates along the Chinese coast during naval battles.

Seen here: Definition of "it seemed like a good idea at the time". (United States Civil Air Patrol)

Then of course, there was Ming-dynasty bureaucrat Wan-Hu's notorious trip to the moon. In events made famous by Mythbusters and chuckled over by historians around the world, the official decided to strap 47 rockets to a chair and have them lit by 47 servants simultaneously. Wan Hu picked a lovely clear day, wore his best robes of state, then "vanished" by all accounts of eyewitnesses after the rockets exploded. Whether Wan Hu made it or not, NASA decided to be nice and named a crater on the dark side of the Moon after him. I'm not sure if they'd bestow the same honor if someone tried this again, which is why I'd advise my readers not to... don't waste perfectly good chairs like this!

The possibilities of science fiction using Chinese technology available in the 19th century (although the Chinese abandoned rocketry in favor of guns eventually) are very vast considering their aptitudes in natural sciences, architecture, pyrotechnics, decorative arts, civil engineering, and medicine. For all of steampunks' love of jetpacks, why not make a metal-based version similar to a fire cannon? Or a rocket launcher as a weapon? What would a steampunk Chinese rocket maker look like?

A Ming "wing bomb", a rocket mounted on a gliding frame shaped like a bird. (Chinahistoryforum)

These are all things to think about when going on your next global ballistic adventure. Now if you'll excuse me, I think my roommate's cat wants to take a ride on the dining room chair. Should any of you find her in your neck of the woods, please send me an email and I'll give you the mailing address.


  1. A cat strapped into the remains of a chair has just landed on my roof in Canberra, Australia. Cat seems annoyed - but it's hard to tell with cats. Please send further instructions.

    Louise Curtis

  2. Barry Hughart's Chronicles of Master Li (Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen) use Chinese folklore and technology to excellent effect. Though not Steampunk, strictly speaking, a wonderful read.

  3. I missed this the first time around but I must say it's awesome. Will totally incorporate a rocket in my outfit for world of steam next year.

  4. is the wing bomb real

  5. Tác dụng tinh dầu bưởi kích thích mọc tóc, thư giãn thần kinh, rất có ích trong cuộc sống. Tự chế tinh dầu bưởi tại nhà sẽ hướng dẫn bạn cách tạo ra loại tinh dầu này để phục vụ cuộc sống của mình.

    Người Nhật có tuổi thọ cao, vóc dáng quyến rũ, không béo chủ yếu là do do họ có “bí quyết riêng”. Bí quyết 9 lý do khiến phụ nữ Nhật Bản trẻ lâu.

    Mẹo chọn quà 8/3 đơn giản không phải ai cũng biết dưới đây,với Mẹo chọn quà 8/3 các đấng mày râu có thể “tạm biệt” lúng túng...