Article ID: CBB231312398

Cooking Niter, Prototyping Nature: Saltpeter and Artisanal Experiment in Korea, 1592–1635 (2022)


From experimental philosophers in England to workshop managers in Korea, practitioners across the seventeenth-century world developed new ways of investigating nature while studying saltpeter (potassium nitrate), the chief ingredient of gunpowder. Contrary to global histories that emphasize circulation, however, this early modern convergence had less to do with the fluid movement of knowledge and technology than with the very moments when such movement failed. This essay argues that in Chosŏn Korea (1392–1910) the problem of adopting a Chinese method of manufacture—a “thing that did not work”—proved productive in unexpected ways. In the process of vetting the foreign knowledge, the Korean saltpeterers (artisans and military officers) discovered solutions that suited the local conditions. They also established a mode of experimentalism that used hands-on trials to investigate the natural world, drew on the artisanal techniques of “experiment” (sihŏm) and “prototyping” (kyŏnyang), and operated in two languages—the vernacular, hangŭl script and literary Sinitic.

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Authors & Contributors
Cressy, David
Bae, Woo-sung
Jun, Yong-Hoon
Koo, Mhan Ock
Guo, Shi-rong
Roberts, Lissa Louise
Han'guk Kwahak-sa Hakhoe-ji (Journal of the Korean History of Science Society)
Dong Bang Hak Chi (The Journal of Korean Studies)
Nei Menggu Shifan Daxue Xuebao (Ziran Kexue Ban)
Past and Present
The Minnesota Archaeologist
Economic History Review
Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen
Oxford University Press
Harvard University Asia Center
University of Minnesota
Crafts and craftspeople
Transmission of ideas
Le Sueur
Paracelsus, Theophrast von Hohenheim
Louis XIV, King of France
Stubbe, Henry
Henshaw, Thomas
Time Periods
17th century
18th century
16th century
Choson dynasty (Korea, 1392-1910)
Early modern
19th century
Great Britain
Minnesota (U.S.)
Royal Society of London

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