Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, a high explosive consisting of sodium carbonate and three parts nitroglycerine to one part diatomaceous earth. He obtained patents in England in 1866 and in Sweden in 1867. Nobel had intended to market dynamite as an alternative to gunpowder for large-scale construction work, such as roads and tunnel building, but it also saw use in the military and by revolutionaries as a weapon.
The key ingredient of dynamite--nitroglycerine--was discovered by Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero in 1847. Sobrero stumbled upon nitroglycerine while attempting to create new medicine. He injured himself when he heated the syrupy glycerine with nitric acid and sulphuric acid in a test tube, making an oil that, once separated from the acids, caused an explosion.
Nobel sought to use nitroglycerine as a blasting agent for explosives and developed a means to detonate it safely. He eventually found that mercury fulminate, ignited with a fuse or spark, could safely detonate the nitro and other components that made up the explosive.
Dynamite was extremely volatile and prone to decomposition and unplanned explosions. Shipping was dangerous because of leaking and movement. Users often managed to blow themselves up along with the building they were in and anyone nearby. A shipment en route to California blew up in Panama, killing 60 and causing a half-million dollars in damage. Nobel's own dynamite factory in Hamburg, Germany, blew up, leaving nothing but a shattered foundation. Using diatomaceous earth or sawdust as an absorbent reduced its sensitivity. Later, freezing dynamite made it safe for transportation.
As Nobel intended, dynamite was a boon to the construction industry, particularly in the United States during its expansion period. Dynamite bored a five-mile hole in Hoosac Mountain, Massachusetts, to provide a train route. Seven million pounds were used in 1890 to build the New Croton Reservoir System in New York. New York's subway construction project in 1900 used 10 million pounds. And 61 million pounds were used to build the Panama Canal.
In the 1880s, the U.S. military experimented with guns that fired dynamite at the enemy. However, the concussion from the blast of the gun prematurely detonated the dynamite. Other explosive applications had been developed by this time, and the use of dynamite was minimised.
Weapon of the People
Dynamite became the weapon of choice for anarchists, Bolsheviks, terrorists and revolutionaries, who saw the explosive as a means to level the playing field against powerful governments. In 1881, Russian revolutionaries assassinated Czar Alexander II with dynamite. The Irish Republican Army group Sinn Féin considered dynamite its best weapon against the British Army.
By the early 1960s, a cheaper and safer explosive was developed using ammonium nitrate mixed at the site with 6 per cent fuel oil. This was the type of explosive used by Timothy McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. In the 1950s, 95 per cent of the explosives in the United States were dynamite; today, it's less than 2 per cent.
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