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Last update 2019.08.08

MAXAM Foundation - Alfred Nobel - The birth of the explosives industry



“My new explosive, called dynamite, is simply nitroglycerine in combination with a very porous silicate, and I have given it a new name, not to hide its nature, but to emphasize its explosive traits in the new form; these are so different that a new name is truly called for. A reddish-yellow, soft and plastic mass that is pressed into cartridges of a certain thickness and then enclosed in paper wrappers”.

On September 19, 1866, Alfred Nobel registers a patent in Sweden with the above description. The product’s registered trademark would be “Dynamite, or Nobel’s Safety Powder”, a name chosen to reflect the greek word dynamis, meaning ‘power’. Alfred Nobel’s invention was the product of his unbridled visionary and investigative capacities, which he applied to the study of nitroglycerine so many years before.


 The promise of nitroglycerine

Originally invented by Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero in 1847, nitroglycerine is a combination of nitric and sulfuric acids. Initially he called it “pyroglycerine”. From the very first moment,the Italian was well-aware of the high energetic potential of the product, and of how difficult it was to handle it securely. Variations in its temperature, as well as movement, could bring on its detonation.

Nobel would coincide with Sobrero during his training in the Parisian laboratory of the chemist T.J. Pelouze, between 1850 and 1852. The inventor was already familiar with the application of chemistry to create explosive products, due to the fact that his father, Immanuel, had invented underwater mines, producing them at his facilities in St. Petersburg in order to protect the port from enemy raids during the Crimean War (1854-56).

From the first moment Nobel was aware of the positive potential of the new product, but also of how challenging it would be make it a product safe for handling, production, transportation and end use. Following the closure of the family business in St. Petersburg in 1856, Nobel returned to Stockholm, where he established a suburban laboratory in which he investigated how to reach the practical use of nitroglycerin.

1863, the blasting cap patent

In October 1863 Alfred Nobel patented a derivative of nitroglycerine which he called “blasting oil”. Shortly thereafter, he also patented the blasting cap, initially denominated the “initial igniter”: a hollow wooden tube filled with black powder. The groundbreaking quality of his work was reflected in his comments at the time: “I am the first to have brought these subjects from the area of science to that of industry.”

The inventor received a loan from a French bank, with which he financed his business venture. In 1864 the Swedish Railway Company built the Soder tunnel in Stockholm (covering some 500 meters, it made the city’s north-south rail link possible) with the use of Nobel’s “blasting oil”. In 1865, Nobel improved his blasting cap, replacing its original wooden component with one made of metal. 

That same year he began building a factory in Germany (near Hamburg), and made his first business trip to the United States of America with the patents that had already registered.

Kieselguhr

Although Nobel’s patent had reduced risks of manipulation when handling nitroglycerin, an accident at his German plant in August of 1866 -similar to that which took place in Stockholm in September of 1864- led him to conclude that the solution might be to dilute the nitroglycerin in some type of porous material, creating a mixture that would be easier to manipulate.

In the vicinity of the facility he found a type of porous and absorbent sand, known as Kieselguhr in German. This sand could absorb the nitroglycerin, and produced a paste which was easy to work and mold into bars… which could, in the same measure, be easily inserted into boreholes. Likewise, it could be easily transported without any problems of instability, and only be initiated by use of a blasting cap.

The patenting and industrial production of dynamite: major infrastructures

The dynamite patent would be registered in Sweden on September 19, 1866. Shortly thereafter, it would likewise enter into the national registries of a number of other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. Its industrial production began –as did its widespread use–; the demand for the product quickly grew exponentially.

This was a historic moment for major infrastructure projects: railways, ports, bridges, roads, tunnels, mines... All required blasting operations. One of many such projects was the St. Gotthard rail tunnel in Switzerland, where the crucial use of dynamite allowed for the 15 km stretch to open in 1881.

  THE FIRST, FORMAL RECOGNITION

In 1868, after dynamite’s invention and recognition by the scientific community, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences commended Alfred Nobel and his father for their "important discoveries of practical value to humanity”.

The commemorative medal minted by the Academy on the occasion of the award’s presentation showed, on one side, a tunnel built by blasting. On the other side, a portrait of Alfred Nobel appeared along with the Latin inscription Creavit et promovit (“he who created and promoted”). These three words perfectly summarize the life of the inventor of dynamite.

A woodcut by Lagarde, published in ‘La Ilustración Militar’ in 1881.
1. Production of dynamite cartridges in Galdácano (Bilbao, Spain).
2. Separation of explosive gels in Galdácano.
3. Production of explosive dynamite in Galdácano.


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