How Dynamite Spawned the Nobel Prizes

By: Kw Now News - McGill News - Joe Schwarcz PhD
| Published 10/09/2021

How Dynamite Spawned the Nobel Prizes

How Dynamite Spawned the Nobel Prizes

'The Nobel Prizes were born, all because a journalist did not check his facts.'

Not Quite Dead ...

Alfred Nobel wasn't in the best of health but he knew he wasn't dead. Yet, there was his obituary, prominently featured in the morning newspaper. To make matters worse, not only had the newspaper killed him off prematurely, it had described him as a man who "became rich by finding a way to kill more people faster than ever before." The French press service that provided the story had made a mistake. It was actually Alfred's older brother Ludvig who had died while vacationing in Cannes but a reporter had gotten the brothers mixed up. Alfred was deeply disturbed by this chance preview of how the world would remember him. Yes, he had invented dynamite and gelignite, the most powerful explosives known at the time, but he had always envisaged that they would be used to the benefit of mankind. Indeed, he had spoken of producing a substance of "such frightful efficacy for wholesale destruction that it would make wars impossible." Unfortunately, he was wrong.

As LUCK would have it...

Nobel was born in Sweden but spent his early years in St. Petersburg in Russia where his inventor father had set up a small business developing sea mines for the Russian government. Young Alfred had ambitions of becoming a writer but his father thought that a scientific career would be more practical. So he sent sixteen-year-old Alfred to apprentice in the laboratory of the noted French chemist Theophile Pelouze. It was here that he met Ascanio Sobrero, an Italian chemist, who told him about a fascinating substance he had discovered. "Pyroglycerine," Nobel learned, was an oily liquid that exploded with great vigour when detonated. Sobrero had made it by reacting a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids with glycerine, a substance readily available by treating fats with sodium hydroxide. He had gotten the idea from a story about a chance discovery made in 1838 by Friedrich Schonbein, a professor of chemistry at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Schonbein, as the story goes, was experimenting in his kitchen with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids which he accidentally spilled. He quickly picked up his wife's cotton apron and wiped up the mess. When Schonbein tried to dry the apron by hanging it near a stove, it burst into flame and disappeared in a flash. He realized that cellulose, the basic component of cotton, had somehow reacted with the acids to create an explosive material.

Lethal BUT very, very, Sensitive

Sobrero realized that glycerol and cellulose shared some chemical features and he wondered what would happen if he reacted it with the mix of acids that Schonbein had used. The results were remarkable. The nitric acid converted glycerine into Sobrero's "pyroglycerine," which in chemical lingo was better described as "nitroglycerine." When heated, it just burned. But as the temperature reached 220oC nitroglycerine exploded, although not always in a predictable fashion. The yellow liquid was also sensitive to shock, and it seemed to Nobel that if nitroglycerine were to be used as an explosive, a reliable detonation system would have to be found.

Stay Awake or KABOOM!

Alfred suggested to his father that they focus their attention on making nitroglycerine on a large scale. Immanuel Nobel did not need much convincing because his factory in St. Petersburg, which had been very profitable during the Crimean War, now faced bankruptcy. The family moved back to Sweden and set up a factory to produce nitroglycerine. Almost immediately tragedy struck when an explosion killed Emil, the youngest son. The nitration of glycerine was a dangerous business. So dangerous that in some cases the workers who monitored the reaction were made to sit on one-legged stools so that they would immediately wake up should they dose off. One would think, though, that sitting in front of a bubbling kettle frothing with brown fumes of nitrogen oxides, containing the most powerful explosive known to mankind, would have been enough of a motivator to staying awake.


Making nitroglycerine wasn't the only problem. How to detonate it was an even bigger concern. Alfred solved this problem with his invention of the mercury fulminate blasting cap. But without a doubt, Nobel's greatest contribution was the invention of dynamite, which safely harnessed the energy of nitroglycerine. He had long considered the idea of mixing nitroglycerine with some solid material with the hope of decreasing its shock sensitivity. Finally Nobel hit on a type of silica, known as diatomaceous earth, which was ideal. The sticks of dynamite could be safely transported and would only explode when triggered with a blasting cap. Dynamite would change the world. It would allow the Panama Canal to be built, but contrary to Nobel's hopes, would also take warfare to a new level.

There's No Such Thing as BAD Press

Alfred Nobel had loathed war all his life and was stunned when his obituary referred to him as a "merchant of death." He vowed that he would not be remembered as such! So he decided to leave his immense fortune to foster science, literature and peace. The Nobel Prizes were born! All because a journalist did not check his facts.

Alfred Nobel - 1833-1896