I was watching the adventures of Brent from Cerro Gordo on Youtube and he found century-old dynamite in an abandoned mine. He talked about the instability of his discovery, which led me to search for information about…
Who invented dynamite?
This answer is a Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor, businessman, and philanthropist Alfred Nobel during the 1860s. Yes, the same man behind the famous Nobel Prizes. The two are connected because, when his brother Ludvig died, people thought it was him and a French newspaper published an obituary in which he was described as a merchant of death. Alfred decided to leave behind a better legacy.
Alfred Nobel didn’t invent dynamite as a way to kill more people. He was searching for a better way to blast rock than black powder.
Chemistry was a family business. Nobel’s father was an inventor who worked in Russia where he manufactured explosive mines. It was a successful business that led Alfred to have a good education with private tutors who taught him a lot about chemistry.
He continued to study this discipline in Paris and went to work in the United States, before returning home to work with his father. After the Crimean War, the family business faltered, and Alfred started to experiment with explosives in order to find a way to salvage some part of the enterprise.
Just Add Nitroglycerin
During his time in Paris, studying under chemist Théophile-Jules Pelouze, Alfred Nobel learned about pyroglycerine—first synthesized by the Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero in 1847, another student of Pelouze—an oil made by adding glycerol to a mix of nitric and sulfuric acids. For Sobrero, it was too destructive and volatile to have many practical uses.
In 1863, Nobel found a way to use what was renamed nitroglycerin. He was fascinated by it and worked on it with his father and his brother Emil. His first innovation was to use a small wooden detonator with a black powder charge as a way to ignite the nitroglycerin placed in a metal container. It was not perfect and the experimentations continue.
In 1864, while experimenting with nitroglycerin, Emil died together with several other factory workers. The tragedy led Nobel to invent a better detonator, blasting caps—a small metal cap containing a charge of mercury fulminate that can be exploded by either shock or moderate heat.
Using Nitroglycerin was safer, but the oil was still too unstable. Then one day, Nobel discovered that it can be stabilized by mixing it with diatomaceous earth—also called Kieselguhr, a porous and friable sedimentary rock. The resulting product was called dynamite—from Greek dynamic, meaning power).
Alfred Nobel patented his discovery everywhere and started mass production. It revolutionized the construction industry.
The Invention of Ballistite
Nobel didn’t stop here. In 1875, his research led him to discover blasting gelatin was more stable and powerful than dynamite, and in 1887, he patented Ballistite, a smokeless propellant made from two high explosives, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine—a substitute to black powder, and a precursor of cordite.
Nobel offered to sell Ballistite to France, but he was accused of having stolen it from Paul Vieille—the inventor of Poudre B, a similar product—and ended up being branded a traitor by the press. He sold Ballistite to Italy where he spent the last five years of his life. He died in 1896.
Nobel was obsessed with explosives, but he also patented other inventions like synthetic rubber, leather, and artificial silk among many other things.