The Devil’s Art: The History of Gunpowder Manufacture

May 31st 2019 by Nathanael Hodge

A man in a monk’s habit kneels on the floor, books and implements scattered about him. In his hand he holds a pair of scales – he is weighing ingredients to add to the mortar in front of him. Over him stands a sinister winged figure, directing his actions with a cruel smirk on his face. What’s going on here?
Poster Image

The man is Berthold Schwarz, long given the credit for the invention of gunpowder in the 14th century – though in fact Chinese alchemists had been manufacturing the explosive from the 9th century, and it is first mentioned in the West in the writings of Roger Bacon (13th century).

Whatever the actual details of gunpowder’s introduction to Europe, it is clear that it was considered to be an evil that only the devil could have dreamt up. Berthold Schwarz is a semi-legendary figure – also known as Bertholdus Niger or Berthold le Noir; his surname indicates that he was considered a ‘Nygermanticus’ – a master of the black art. While seeking to manufacture gold paint he accidently  caused his mortar to explode, thus creating gunpowder. This picture shows the event. Once again the devil is masterminding the process, putting ideas into Berthold’s mind by blowing them into his ear with a bellows:

These two pictures are from one of the Archive’s latest acquisitions, from the collection of Alan and Glenys Crocker. Bound with a cover made of wooden boards and kept shut with engraved metal clasps, the volume feels like it wouldn’t be out of place in the Hogwarts library or Bilbo Baggins’s study.

In fact it is a copy of ‘Monumenta Pulveris Pyrii’ by Oscar Guttmann, published in 1906 with a print run of only 270 copies. The book consists of a set of reproductions of historic images concerning the history of gunpowder, covering everything from the legend of Berthold Schwarz to photographs of ‘Men of note of modern times’ such as Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, along with Guttman’s notes and commentary.

For several centuries gunpowder continued to be manufactured by hand, with the ingredients being ‘incorporated’ in a pestle and mortar like Berthold’s in the images above. The next stage in the development of the technology was the introduction of stamp mills like these, which could be powered by hand, treadmill or waterwheel:

As the machinery turns the stamps rise and fall, beating the powder in the troughs below. In time this was replaced with edge-runner stones, as shown here:

We are very grateful to Glenys Crocker for the gift of this beautiful volume, a timely acquisition given our current “Mills make the world go ‘round” project, which involves exploring the many industries for which mills have been used throughout history. It’s not the only fascinating gunpowder-related item in the collection either, so look out for more blogs about the Crocker collection in the near future.

You can see more items relating to gunpowder mills on our catalogue.