Nobel introduces the era of high explosives.
Until the mid-ninetheenth century , the most powerful known explosive was gunpowder. In 1846 Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero discovered that by nitrating glycerin he could make a fearsomely explosive liquid. It was also frighteningly unstable. Alfred Nobel undertook the dangerous task of turning nitroglycerin into a marketable product. Despite an explosion in 1864 that killed his brother and workers at the family’s factory, he persisted with his experiments.
Nobel’s first success came from combining nitroglycerin used a mercury fulminate detonator. He began producing this explosive in bulk, but the frequency of accidents soon saw it banned in many countries. In 1866 Nobel discovered a mixture of nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth, a chalklike sedimentary rock. He christened this comparatively safe explosive dynamite, from the Greek word for ‘power’. Packed into paper tubes, dynamite was soon selling in vast quantities and revolutionzed activities such as tunnel-building and quarrying.
Dynamite, patented in 1867, started the era of ‘high explosives’ as patents for similar, but even more powerful and reliable substances multiplied. These greatly increased the destructive power at the disposal of humankind- a power that was inevitably applied to warfare. The story goes that Nobel was shocked at reading his own premature obituary in 1888, in which he was described as a ’merchant of death.’ This may have motivated him to leave his fortune to the funding of the annual Nobel prizes to those who have ‘conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.’