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Alfred Nobel’s Role in Developing and Improving Explosives Essay

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Updated: Jul 15th, 2021

Introduction

Alfred Nobel is one of the most prominent figures in the history of chemical engineering due to his role in developing and improving explosives. The key invention of Nobel was dynamite, which had a revolutionizing effect on the industry in the 19th century. His other famous inventions included blasting gelatin, detonating caps, and blasting powder. Alfred Nobel’s legacy also includes the Nobel Prize, which was established in his will and is still used today to motivate and reward great scientists from all over the globe. The influence of Alfred Nobel on the development of explosives can be evaluated through a review of his life and achievements that made him one of the most prominent scientists of the time.

Early Life and Education

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 21, 1833 (Nagendrappa, 2013). His father Immanuel Nobel was a civil engineer and an inventor engaged in construction business, and his mother owned a grocery store that provided the family with modest income. Shortly after Alfred Nobel was born, his father’s business became bankrupt, causing him to travel to Russia in order to start a new enterprise there (Nagendrappa, 2013). In 1842, Alfred and his brothers joined their father in St. Petersburg, Russia, where they received excellent private education in science and languages.

According to various historical accounts, Alfred Nobel was already fluent in Swedish, French, English, German, and Russian when he was only 17 years of age (Delucca, 2017). At this time, it was already clear that Alfred Nobel would excel in science. Although his favorite areas of study were English literature and poetry, he was also interested in chemistry and physics due to the nature of his father’s business. By the age of 16, he was already a trained chemist with extensive experience and numerous independent laboratory studies (Delucca, 2017). Further study would strengthen his knowledge of chemical engineering, as well as his interest in studying explosive substances.

Interest in Explosives

Immanuel Nobel played an important part in influencing his son’s interest in explosives. While in Russia, he worked for the government to provide them with a variety of military equipment. During the Crimean War, Immanuel Nobel developed naval mines filled with gunpowder, which turned out to be instrumental in preventing the British Royal Navy forces from entering the Russian territorial waters near St. Petersburg (“Alfred Nobel’s life and work,” 2018). In order to support Alfred’s study of sciences, Immanuel sent him to study chemical engineering abroad. In just two years, Alfred Nobel visited Sweden, Germany, France, and the United States, and has worked with prominent scholars in each country.

Studies in France had a significant impact on Nobel’s future development as a chemical engineer because they marked a beginning of his work with explosives. While in Paris, he worked together with Professor T. J. Pelouze, who was famous for his achievements in chemistry (Delucca, 2017). Pelouze’s assistant was an Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who is famous for inventing nitroglycerine. However, Sobrero did not move further into developing the substance since he feared that it was too destructive and unstable to be of any practical use (Eschner, 2017). Nobel saw great potential for improving the substance, making it safer to handle and more controllable. He returned to Sweden after completing his studies and set up a laboratory in Stockholm, which became home to many of his inventions.

Developing Nitroglycerine

Alfred Nobel began experimenting with explosives in the 1860s, after returning to Stockholm. At this time, the most popular and widely used explosive was gunpowder. Although it lacked the potency of nitroglycerine, it was considered to be stable and predictable in terms of its effects (Arreseigor, 2017). Nitroglycerine, on the other hand, had caused several dangerous accidents involving those attempting to study it, including Ascanio Sobrero (Eschner, 2017).

Hence, most chemical engineers deemed it unpromising and avoided developing the substance further. For several years, Nobel focused on studying gunpowder and even patented improvements in gunpowder production in Sweden and England (“List of Alfred Nobel’s patents”, 2018). However, Nobel sought to find a solution to the issue of the instability of nitroglycerine, which would allow for the controlled use of nitroglycerin in rock-blasting, drilling, and military activities.

One of the main challenges for using nitroglycerine was its liquid form. Nitroglycerine was produced by mixing sulphuric and nitric acids, resulting in an oily substance, which contributed to the probability of incidents (Nagendrappa, 2013). This was the first issue that Nobel wanted to address in his studies of the substance. Together with his father, Nobel tried to mix nitroglycerine wit sawdust, cotton, gunpowder, and other components to stabilize the liquid (Nagendrappa, 2013).

They achieved some success, but the results were far from optimal. According to Nagendrappa (2013), “Mixing with brick powder made the explosive safe, but it was difficult to detonate, while the other filling materials were inflammable – the mixtures with them were marginally safer than using nitroglycerine alone” (p. 504).

After a series of experiments, Immanuel and Alfred Nobel decided to commercialize nitroglycerine in its pure form, which found some applications in the construction business (Nagendrappa, 2013). They set up mass production of the substance, which soon resulted in a tragic accident that took the life of Alfred’s brother and five others. Accidents during the transportation of blasting oil were also relatively frequent, thus encouraging Alfred to continue efforts at stabilizing the substance on his own. After numerous experiments, he found that nitrocellulose could be used to achieve a desirable consistency of the substance, thus preventing leakages and improving safety (Javier & Carcedo, 2017). This was a major breakthrough that allowed for future development and use of the explosives in various settings.

Dynamite and Detonating Caps

Undoubtedly, dynamite is one of the most famous inventions of Alfred Nobel. It stemmed directly from his efforts at reducing the dangers of nitroglycerine. By mixing the substance with nitrocellulose, Nobel achieved a paste that could be molded into sticks and placed in holes for rock blasting (Nagendrappa, 2013). In its new form, nitroglycerine was safe to handle and much more predictable than blasting oil. Nobel called his invention dynamite and received a patent for it in 1867 (“List of Alfred Nobel’s patents”, 2018). Dynamite had a number of important benefits that enabled for its active use in construction, rock blasting, and other areas of the industry.

Firstly, dynamite was stronger than its alternatives, including pure nitroglycerine. According to Javier and Carcedo (2017), dynamite released more energy than gunpowder and nitroglycerine, and the form of the explosive made its effect more targeted. Secondly, dynamite had great water resistance, which meant that it could be safely used in underwater construction (Javier & Carcedo, 2017). Lastly, dynamite was chemically stable; this feature reduced the possibility of accidents during its use, thus resolving one of the most crucial issues associated with nitroglycerine.

However, some challenges to the use of dynamite were still evident. The main drawback of dynamite was that it needed to be detonated by some other explosive (Nagendrappa, 2013). Thus, Nobel sought to develop a method for the detonation of dynamite that would allow eliminating the need for other explosives while maintaining dynamite’s safety properties. The solution came in the form of blasting caps, which Nobel invented and patented shortly after the development of dynamite. Blasting caps contained mercury fulminate, which was previously used to ignite gunpowder in firearms (Nagendrappa, 2013). Blasting caps made it easier to use dynamite in construction works, thus increasing the popularity of the explosive. Dynamite was used in the construction of bridges, railroads, and tunnels, as well as many other structures.

Although Nobel had two manufacturing facilities in Krümmel and Helenoborg, he soon started expanding the production of dynamite to other countries, including Scotland, France, and Italy. Within a few years after creating dynamite and blasting caps, Nobel opened over 90 factories and laboratories in more than 20 countries (Nagendrappa, 2013). Despite the popularity and practicality of dynamite, he also continued studying and developing explosives that would be safer and more effective.

Other Explosives

Alfred Nobel used his laboratories to conduct experiments with explosive substances until the last years of his life. He is credited with two other important inventions: blasting powder and blasting gelatin. The latter was invented by Nobel in 1875 using a mixture of collodion and nitroglycerine (Nagendrappa, 2013). Collodion is a product of nitration of cellulose, which, when mixed with nitroglycerine, produced a substance that was relatively safe and more effective than dynamite (Nagendrappa, 2013). Blasting gelatin contributed to the range of explosives manufactured and sold by Nobel’s company as it found many uses in construction.

Blasting powder, or ballistite, is a smokeless explosive that was used in firearms. Nobel invented blasting powder in 1887 and attempted to sell it to the French army first before offering the rights to Italy in 1889 (Nagendrappa, 2013). Due to the military tensions between the countries, this transaction caused Nobel to leave Paris and settle in San Remo, Italy. Recently, it was also found that Nobel contacted the Russian government about ballistite and even sent out a large number of samples of the powder (Bergman, 2014). Due to the use of ballistite and other explosives in military operations, Nobel was pronounced “the merchant of death” in French media (Nagendrappa, 2013). In an effort to avoid the negative image, Nobel established the award that is currently known as the Nobel Prize in his will.

Lasting Influence

The inventions of Alfred Nobel had a lasting impact on the use of explosives in various areas, including construction work and military operations. As explained by Kirsanov, Vokhmin, and Kurchin (2016), “Replacement of gunpowder with stronger dynamite, patented by Alfred Nobel in 1867, was of paramount importance for mining engineering development” (p. 618). Dynamite made mining, construction, and rock blasting faster and more efficient while also reducing certain safety concerns that were associated with the use of blasting oil. Based on Nobel’s inventions, future scientists continued developing explosives to make them safer and more powerful, thus allowing for his work to have a truly lasting influence.

Nevertheless, dynamite and other forms of nitroglycerine were also widely used in military efforts, leading to an increased number of war casualties (Nagendrappa, 2013). Hence, while Nobel’s discoveries and inventions helped to drive the construction industry forward, they also caused significant destruction that stained his legacy. For instance, during World War I, dynamite and other forms of nitroglycerine were widely used by armies, causing a significant increase in the number of deaths and serious injuries.

Conclusion

All in all, Alfred Nobel played a prominent role in the development and improvement of explosives. The research showed that Nobel’s interest in this area stemmed mostly from his father’s work in construction and chemical engineering. Nobel’s work in improving explosives focused mostly on nitroglycerine, which he saw as a potent replacement for gunpowder. At the time, other scientists, including the inventor of nitroglycerine, perceived the substance to be too dangerous and unpredictable to be of any use. Nobel helped to make it safer and more efficient after years of experimentation.

The four main inventions that mark Nobel’s role in developing and improving explosives are dynamite, detonating caps, blasting powder, and blasting gelatin. All of these inventions were revolutionary at the time, and they had a significant influence on construction work by enhancing rock blasting, mining, and related processes. Nevertheless, Nobel’s work also had some negative effects, including the use of explosives in military operations. While it could be argued that Nobel did not know that his work will be used to harm people, the dubious effects of his inventions on the world cannot be ignored.

References

. (2018). Web.

Arreseigor, J. J. S. (2017). The explosive origins of the Nobel Prizes. National Geographic. Web.

Bergman, Y. (2014). Nobel’s Russian connection. Vulcan, 2(1), 41-62.

Delucca, J. A. (2017). A few great scientists: From Alfred Nobel to Carl Sagan. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation.

Eschner, K. (2017). . Smithsonian Magazine. Web.

Javier, F., & Carcedo, A. (2017). Drilling and blasting of rocks (2nd ed.). Abington, UK: Routledge.

Kirsanov, A. K., Vokhmin, S. A., & Kurchin, G. S. (2016). A brief history of the development of blasting and the modern theory of rock breaking. Journal of Degraded and Mining Lands Management, 3(4), 617-623.

. (2018). Web.

Nagendrappa, G. (2013). Alfred Bernhard Nobel: The founder of the great global awards. Resonance, 18(6), 500-513.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Alfred Nobel's Role in Developing and Improving Explosives." July 15, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/alfred-nobels-role-in-developing-and-improving-explosives/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Alfred Nobel's Role in Developing and Improving Explosives'. 15 July.

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