100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Dynamite
Year of Invention: 1866

What Is It? A highly explosive, but stable, form of nitroglycerine.

Who Invented It? Alfred Nobel (in Sweden)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Dynamite is the world’s most commonly used explosive. For over a century it was the standard for civil engineering projects—roads, canals, foundations, railroads, or mountain cuts. More powerful than gunpowder, far more stable than nitroglycerine, dynamite made many engineering projects feasible and saved thousands of lives during both manufacturing and use. The success of dynamite also produced a fortune for Alfred Nobel—a fortune that allowed him to create the annual Nobel prizes.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Gunpowder first appeared in China around A.D. 1000. In 1261, alchemist Roger Bacon was the first European to discover this explosive mixture.

Gunpowder was fine for firing rockets and muskets. However, it wasn’t powerful enough for many rock-blasting and earth-moving projects.


How Was Dynamite Invented?

The story of Alfred Nobel’s 1866 invention of dynamite actually starts in Italy in 1846. Ascanio Sobrero was a chemistry professor at the University of Turin. During the fall term that year, Professor Sobrero conducted a series of chemical experiments. During one of these he slowly trickled glycerin into a mixture of sulfuric and nitric acids and created—in his own words—a nightmarish liquid: nitroglycerine.

Even the slightest shock caused the stuff to explode—viciously, savagely. Sobrero was severely injured by the first explosion. The second time he slid liquid glycerin into a vial of the two strong acids, the explosion destroyed much of his equipment.

Sobrero gave up after his few brief tests all ended in failure (and most in explosions). Horrified by his fiendish creation, he destroyed his notes and refused to pursue commercial production of nitroglycerine. But word had already leaked out, and the world quickly learned of the power and terror of nitroglycerine.

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