Chinese Inventions

By Dr. Frank J. Collazo

December 26, 2007


The Chinese have discovered four key inventions utilized by every country on this planet. Following is a summary of the key inventions:


The Compass


Diagram of a Ming dynasty mariner's compass

Diagram of a Ming dynasty mariner's compass


The earliest reference in Chinese literature to magnetism is found: "The lodestone makes iron come or it attracts it."


The earliest reference to a magnetic device used as a "direction finder" in note #11. Here we find a description of an iron "south-pointing fish" floating in a bowl of water, aligning itself to the south. The device is recommended as a means of orientation "in the obscurity of the night." However, the first suspended magnetic needle compass was written of by Shen Kuo in his book of 1088.


For most of Chinese history, the compass that remained in use was in the form of a magnetic needle floating in a bowl of water. According to Needham, the Chinese in the Song Dynasty and continuing Yuan Dynasty did make use of a dry compass, although this type never became as widely used in China as the wet compass.


The dry compass used in China was a dry suspension compass, a wooden frame crafted in the shape of a turtle hung upside down by a board, with the loadstone sealed in by wax, and if rotated, the needle at the tail would always point in the northern cardinal direction. Although the 14th century European compass-card in box frame and dry pivot needle was adopted in China after its use was taken by Japanese pirates in the 16th century (who had in turn learned of it from Europeans), the Chinese design of the suspended dry compass persisted in use well into the 18th century.

Handgun from the Yuan dynasty, circa 1300s.


Handgun from the Yuan dynasty, circa 1300s.

Main article: History of gunpowder


By the time the Song Dynasty treatise of the Wujing Zongyao was written by Zeng Gongliang and Yang Weide in 1044 AD, the various Chinese formulas for gunpowder held levels of nitrate in the range of 27% to 50%. By the end of the 12th century, Chinese formulas of gunpowder had a level of nitrate capable of bursting through cast iron metal containers, in the form of the earliest hollow, gunpowder-filled grenade bombs.


In 1280 AD the bomb store of the large gunpowder arsenal at Weiyang had accidentally caught fire, which produced such a massive explosion that a team of Chinese inspectors at the site a week later deduced that some 100 guards had been killed instantly, with wooden beams and pillars blown sky high and landing at a distance of over 10 li (~2 mi. or ~3.2 km) away from the explosion.


By the time of Jiao Yu and his Huo Long Jing in the mid 14th century, the explosive potential of gunpowder was perfected, as the level of nitrate in gunpowder formulas had risen to a range of 12% to 91%, with at least 6 different formulas in use that are considered to have maximum explosive potential for gunpowder. By that time, the Chinese had discovered how to create explosive cannonballs by packing their hollow shells with this nitrate-enhanced gunpowder.


Hemp wrapping paper, China, circa 100 BC

Hemp wrapping paper, China, circa 100 BC

Main article: Papermaking


Papermaking has traditionally been traced to China about 105 AD, when Cai Lun, an official attached to the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. However a recent archaeological discovery has been reported from near Dunhuang of paper with writing on it dating to 8 BC.


While paper used for wrapping and padding was used in China since the 2nd century BC, Paper used as a writing medium became widespread by the 3rd century, and by the 6th century sheets of paper in China were beginning to be used for toilet paper as well. During the Tang Dynasty (618907 AD) paper was folded and sewn into square bags to preserve the flavor of tea, while the later Song Dynasty (9601279 AD) was the first government on earth to issue paper-printed money (see banknote).




The Chinese invention of Woodblock printing, at some point before the first dated book in 868 (the Diamond Sutra) produced the first print culture in the world: "it was the Chinese who really discovered the means of communication that was to dominate until our age." It was better suited to Chinese characters than movable type, which the Chinese also invented, but which did not replace woodblock printing. Western printing presses, although introduced in the 16th century, took until the 19th to spread in China which, along with Korea, was one of the last countries to adopt them.


Woodblock printing for textiles, on the other hand, preceded text printing by centuries in all cultures, and is first found in China at around 220, then Egypt in the 4th century, and reached Europe by the 14th century or before, via the Islamic world, and by around 1400 was being used on paper for old master prints and playing cards." In another analysis Hyatt Mayor states that "a little before 1400 Europeans had enough paper to begin making holy images and playing cards in woodcut. They need not have learned woodcut from the Chinese, because they had been using woodblocks for about 1,000 years to stamp designs on linen.


Printing in China was further advanced by the 11th century, as it was written by the Song Dynasty scientist and statesman Shen Kuo (1031-1095) that the common artisan Bi Sheng (990-1051) invented ceramic movable type printing. Then there were those such as Wang Zhen (fl. 1290-1333) and Hua Sui (1439-1513), the former of whom invented wooden movable type printing in China, the latter of whom invented metal movable type printing in China. Movable type printing was a tedious process if one were to assemble thousands of individual characters for the printing of simply one or a few books, but if used for printing thousands of books, the process was efficient and rapid enough to be successful and highly employed. Indeed, there were many cities in China where movable type printing, in wooden and metal form, was adopted by the enterprises of wealthy local families or large invested industries. Even the Qing Dynasty court sponsored enormous printing projects using movable type printing during the 18th century.


Other Inventions:

China is a country where many inventions made their first appearances. The inventions which made their first appearances in China are listed below (Note #12):

Blast furnace, chosticks, crack (mecahnism),Escapement mechanism for cloks, exploding cannonball, Fire arrow, firearm, horse collar, hull compartments/bulkkheads,indian ink, kites,naval mines, sailing carriage, rockets, seismometer, differential gear, silk,toilet paper, winowing machine,sluice gates, traditoinal chinese medicine, and trip hammer.



4th century BC book called Book of the Devil Valley Master, Microsoft Encarta 2007. 1993-2006 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


Song Dynasty book dated to 1040-44, Microsoft Encarta 2007. 1993-2006 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


Needham's Volume 4 Part 2, Science and Civilization in China, Microsoft Encarta 2007. 1993-2006 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


Robert K. G. Temple, The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention, Publisher: Prion (October 1, 1998), ISBN 978-1853752926


Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.


Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, Web Site: ""