A Blast from the Past: The Creation of Dynamite

The history of dynamite is one of construction, destruction, death, invention, innovation, trial, error and inspiration. A history worth reading about.

Who Invented Dynamite?

The inventor of dynamite was a man named Alfred Nobel. Nobel was born in Sweden in 1833. In 1851 at the age of 18, Nobel moved to the United States of America to study chemistry. As a child, his family had travelled extensively through Europe and he had learnt several languages. He spent four years in the United States and returned to Sweden in 1855. When his father’s family business collapsed, Alfred devoted his studies to the manufacture, use and safe detonation of explosives and through trial and horrendous error, came upon the single explosive that was used so extensively for the next century that, even though it’s considered outdated today, is still considered…dynamite!

19th Century Explosives

The 18th but increasingly the 19th century, saw the boom-years of the Industrial Revolution. Literally. A lot of things were going ‘Boom’ in the 1800s. The transcontinental railroad across the USA was being built, in Australia and California, gold-rushes were driving people crazy trying to get rich. In Seuz, a great canal was being dug through the earth. In England, London’s famous ‘Underground’ railroad system was being built.

But for all this to be possible…for all the tunnelling, blasting, mining, trenching, dredging and excavation to be made possible…people needed explosives. To chip away at rock for hours was ineffective when you could instead blast the rock apart and then just simply carry away the leftover pieces. Easy in theory, very difficult in practice.

There were two main explosives in the mid 19th century. Blackpowder and Nitroglycerine.

Blackpowder had been used since the 1600s for construction-work and mining. People drilled holes into rockfaces, filled them with blackpowder, trailed a fuse, lit it and let the explosion do its work. But blackpowder was relatively weak. It was designed for use firing rifles, cannons, pistols and muskets…not blasting holes in rock. This ancient recipe of charcoal, sulphur and potassium nitrate, had to be replaced with something more effective.

That more effective something was invented in 1847 by an Italian chemist named Ascanio Sobrero. Although he was actually trying to create a medicine at the time, Sobrero’s discovery nearly blew his hands off! He had unwittingly invented an oily, liquid explosive which he called…nitroglycerine.

Nitroglycerine has an explosive power eight times what blackpowder of a similar quantity could produce and people were quick to see that this could blast and tunnel and mine and build and quarry, a hell of a lot more effectively than old-fashioned gunpowder. However, there was a problem.

Nitroglycerine is notoriously and lethally unstable. Because it is a contact-explosive which detonates from sufficient agitation, the slightest shock, bump or jolt can cause it to blow up. Because of this, using, but even moreso, transporting, nitroglycerine was extremely dangerous. For nitroglycerine to be used in construction of major engineering projects, it was necessary to have a chemist on-site to mix the concoction for you, then and there, when you needed it. Transporting nitroglycerine to a construction-site by a bumpy, jolty, shaky and vibrating horse and cart was a sure recipe for disaster on a monumental scale.

The biggest problem, apart from this, was nitroglycerine’s unpredictable nature. People knew it was unstable and that a jolt could cause it to blow up, but the problem was…they didn’t know how much of a jolt. You could strike a bottle of nitroglycerine with a hammer and nothing could happen. Or you could jump up and down with a bottle in your hand and it would blow up in your face.

It was for all these reasons, it’s legendary instability and frustrating upredictable nature, that a safer explosive had to be found. Something that could be safely transported, safely carried, safely detonated without the risk of exploding unexpectedly.

Alfred Nobel’s Blasting Cap

Nitroglycerine was wonderful stuff. Used properly, it could speed up construction-work on major public-works projects, it could allow people to mine faster and more effectively or blast and split rocks apart for quarrying that much easier. But its unpredictable nature meant that it was very hard to use it properly. Anyone who handled nitroglycerine was in deadly danger of being blown to smithereens. It was to prevent this and to make nitroglycerine easier to use, that Alfred Nobel invented his blasting-cap.

Before Nobel came along, everything about nitroglycerine spelt doom and destruction. First you had to transport it. If your wagon hit a bump, the entire transport of explosives could go up like a nuclear-bomb. Then you had to carry it to where you needed it. One trip or careless jolt and you became a statistic. But then you had to actually detonate it.

People did this in various ways back in the 19th century. One way to detonate nitroglycerine, as many people knew…was just to give it a jiggle. Enough agitation and the quantity of nitroglycerine in question would explode! But nobody really knew just how much agitation it required. And to agitate the mixture, they needed to be near to it. And nobody wanted to be next to nitroglycerine when it exploded.

The other way for nitroglycerine to be detonated was to pour it onto a surface…lay a fuse…light it…and run like all hell. The problem with this is, one stray spark could set off the mixture prematurely and send you flying into the air (or worse). Clearly, there were a few occupational hazards to using nitroglycerine.

Alfred Nobel examined nitroglycerine and decided to try and combine these two methods of detonating nitroglycerine. He recognised that sufficient agitation would cause it to explode. And he also recognised the danger of an open flame or an unpredictable fuse. To try and make this safer, Nobel created his blasting-caps.

Nobel’s blasting-caps were simple, really. They used mercury fulminate (a shock-detonated explosive like nitroglycierine) to create a chain-reaction. Exploding a small amount of mercury fulminate in a metal precussion-cap produced enough of a shock to detonate any nearby nitroglycerine. Nobel’s invention made it easier and safer to detonate nitroglycerine without the need to be connected to the nitroglycerine (such as holding onto a rope and jiggling a bottle) and without the need for open flames from fuses or matches.

Transporting Nitroglycerine

Nobel’s blasting-caps, invented in 1862, were a success insofar as they allowed for safe detonation of nitroglycerine. They did not, however, solve the far more dangerous issue of how to transport nitroglycerine.

Because vibrations, jolts and shocks can cause devastation to anyone transporting nitroglycerine, elaborate measures were taken to try and package it so that it was transported in as shock-proof a state as possible. An article in the Titusville Morning Herald of the 15th of October, 1870, said that…

    “…The use of nitroglycerin has become so common, and the casualties resulting from any accidental explosion of it have been so frightful, that any improvement which adds to the safety of its transportation and storage deserves any encouragement. Mr. Nobel, the most extensive manufacturer of it in the world, whose name is everywhere associated with the improved explosive agents of the day, adopts the practice of mixing it with alcohol. This is said to make it perfectly harmless, so that a rifle ball may be fired into it, or a percussion cap explode in it with perfect safety. The simplicity of this process, and of that which restores its explosive qualities, recommends it as much as does the safety of the prepared article.

    If water be added to the solution, the nitroglycerin immediately sinks to the bottom, and is drawn off for use. In the prepared state, it is packed in hermetically sealed cans, thus preventing the evaporation of the alcohol, which would restore its dangerous qualities to the nitroglycerin, and it may be sent to any distance, and in any climate without the risk of explosion…”

Trying to find a safe way to transport nitroglycerine and to use it became something of an obsession with Alfred Nobel. In 1864, his younger brother Emil Nobel was killed in a nitroglycerine explosion that destroyed their factory. While he was having more and more success with his explosives, Alfred needed something that was much better, more effective and a lot safer. He was beginning to pay the price for his dangerous occupation as an explosives manufacturer.

Inventing Dynamite

Dynamite was finally invented in 1866 when Nobel discovered a substance that would, at the same time bind nitroglycerine together so that it didn’t have to be transported as a liquid in fragile glass bottles, and which would render the explosive harmless until it was ready to be used (or at least, harmless if handled with common sense). This substance was…earth!

Or to be precise, it was diatomaceous earth, also called diatomite, a special type of soft soil a bit like sand. Among its other properties, this earth was very absorbent and was therefore wonderful for mixing with nitroglycerine. Anyone reading this who has a pet cat might recognise this substance…that’s right: Alfred Nobel’s famous invention is a lethally unstable explosive…mixed with kitty-litter! And there is even a legend about how this discovery was made. It was an accident!

To transport nitroglycerine safely, bottles and jars of the stuff were packed into crates and the hollows between the jars were filled with diatomite sand, to cushion the jolting of transportation. When workers were unloading some nitroglycerine near Nobel’s factory one day, they accidently dropped one of the crates! Fearing for their lives, the men bolted! When the cate did not explode, they returned to inspect the damage, which was minimal. Some of the lower jars had broken from the impact, but the sand had done its job and prevented an explosion.

Nobel, searching for a substance to add to nitroglycerine to render it harmless until the time of planned detonation, examined the sand used in packing the nitroglycerine. He experimented with the nitro-infused sand and discovered that if the mixture had a fuse or blasting-cap applied to it, it would detonate, but was otherwise rendered inexplosive due to the sand mixed in with the liquid nitroglycerine.

After further experiments, Nobel had created what he initially called “Nobel’s Blasting Powder” in 1867. His ‘powder’ was created out of a ratio of 3:1 of nitroglycerine to diatomite sand. At last, people had a safe explosive that was as powerful as nitroglycerine but which had none of the instability. The liquid nitroglycerine was mixed in with the earth and the resulting paste was formed into sticks which were wrapped in waxed paper. Using dynamite was as easy as inserting a blasting-cap into the end of the stick of dynamite, trailing away a fuse and then lighting it. The fuse would eventually set off the blasting-cap which woud set off the dynamite.

Nobel’s new invention was a success! Nitroglycerine could now be used safely, although for added protection, sticks of dynamite were often frozen solid in transportation as an extra preventive against accidental explosions. The name ‘Dynamite’ comes from the greek word for ‘Power’, from which we also get words such as ‘Dynamo’ and ‘Dynamic’.

Using and Storing Dynamite

Dynamite was fantastically popular. Finally, construction-workers and builders and engineers had a powerful and safe explosive. You buried the sticks of dynamite, stuck in a blasting-cap and a fuse, lit the fuse and let the explosives take their course.

Of course, Dynamite wasn’t always used for peaceful purposes such as construction and public works. Dynamite, as an all-purpose explosive, was easy to buy. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the availability of dynamite meant that it was used for several murder and assassination-plots. One of the most famous was in 1880, when a carpenter planted dynamite under a dining-room in the Winter Palace in Russia, intent on killing Tsar Alexander II. The assassination was a failure, but it showed just how accessible high explosives could be, to the wrong kind of person.

It was because of publicity like this that Alfred Nobel decided to create the prizes that now bear his name.

The Nobel Prizes

First awarded in 1901, the Nobel Prizes are awarded each year, to those who have made outstanding achievements in the areas of Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Medicine and most famously of all, world peace; the famous Nobel Peace Prize.

The prizes were created as a direct result of the unforseen and disastrous consequences that Alfred Nobel had created with his invention: Dynamite. What had been created to help mankind build and construct and advance society, was also being used to destroy it! Horrified by this and troubled by the kind of legacy that he might leave on the world, Nobel instructed in his last will and testament that his fortune was to be used to create a series of prizes to be given to those people who conferred ‘the greatest benefit to mankind’ in the categories listed above – Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, Literature and World Peace. Nobel died in December, 1896 at the age of 63, about a week before Christmas. Apart from a few years during the Second World War, Nobel Prizes have been awarded each year for the past 110 years.


12 thoughts on “A Blast from the Past: The Creation of Dynamite

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *