HomeThe Hercules Powder WorksExplosives and the Second Industrial Revolution

Explosives and the Second Industrial Revolution

Powerful, reliable, controlled explosive force made possible the extraction of coal and petroleum for energy, and iron ore for steel, at unprecedented scales of effort. Railroads could span continents; the Panama Canal was soon blasted between two oceans.  

The Hercules Works was a headquarters of innovation in explosives.  

Second Industrial Revolution

Brad DeLong’s new book, “Slouching Towards Utopia”, foregrounds the emergence of the modern corporation - and especially the industrial research laboratory.  

Beginning in about 1870, human progress accelerated to the modern setting - constant innovation based on scientific understanding.  Previous innovation was sporadic, craftsmanlike and thin. 

High explosives, now often overlooked, were as significant as petroleum and nitrogen fertilizer in shaping our modern world. 

With one thousand times the power of the old black-powder explosives, the new “dynamite” products enabled planet-scale terraforming such as the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal. 

Discovery and development of high-order explosive chemicals was a very important early example of industrial-scale research by early modern corporations.  

Innovation in explosive chemicals required experiments at the risk of death. Innovation in the manufacture of explosives required capital, labor and control of markets. 

California, after the Gold Rush, was the largest market in the world for this new technology of high explosives. Oligopolists acquired local explosives-makers and funded new factories supplying the western US and Pacific markets. 

The California explosives industry, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, quickly consolidated into a few explosives “works” - production lines on large tracts of land located away from settled cities.  

The California Powder Works at Pinole, northeast of San Francisco became the largest explosives factory in the world. It supplied one-third of the explosives used by the US in World War I, and most of the explosives  in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. 

DuPont, building its national monopoly on explosives, was the innovation leader with a national network of manufacturing locations.  Smart young men joined DuPont to build careers as traveling engineers to invent new materials and methods of manufacture. 

From 1881 through World War II, DuPont’s works at Pinole - called “Hercules” from the brand name of its dynamite - was an important center of research and innovation.  The best chemical engineers of the day visited the Hercules works to advance the science and improve production. 

High Explosives Enable Modern Life

The story of explosives begins with black powder, used by the world’s major civilizations for six centuries. Until about 1840,...

Discovery and Development of High-Order Explosives

Nitroglycerine (or "Blasting Liquid") Nitroglycerine, a chemical compound, was the first “high explosive” that explodes by denonation instead of burning. Italian...

California the Cradle of the Dynamite Industry

The American cradle of this new industry was to be San Francisco. In 1868 Alfred Nobel sold the exclusive United...

Industrial Outpost on the Pacific

http://stacks.herculeshistory.org/Still Image/408 WH McBryde/408 12547 - 1906 Jan 23 - Sulphuric Acid Plant - Site View 00.jpg

Hercules is the earliest story of California-born technological innovation. It is a place of significance in mankind’s mastery of energy,...