False facts that actually changed the world

We thought we could discover an immortality elixir, but we invented a more efficient killer instead

Early Chinese texts described elixirs that could do everything from turning a mortal man into a divine being, to making you invisible. Some elixirs would let you enter the world of the immortals, where demons and the Jade Women would serve your every need. Find a person who says they don’t want to sign up for that retirement plan, and you’ll find a person whose pants are very definitely on fire.

Needless to say, alchemy was serious stuff back in the day. People spent lifetimes trying to create these elixirs, and in 850, a Tang Dynasty alchemist created a formula that was 75 parts saltpeter, 15 parts charcoal, and 10 parts sulfur. ThoughtCo. says that while it didn’t make him immortal, it did something else important. A contemporary text notes that “smoke and flames result, so that [the alchemists’] hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.”

That’s because that formula isn’t for an Elixir of Life — it’s for gunpowder. In what might be the biggest bit of irony in history, alchemists didn’t create life, they created something that would revolutionize warfare very nearly from that day forward. Their creation was weaponized by 904, when the Song military used it to bring the opposite of life to the Mongols.