Hercules Historical Society

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 chemist Ascanio Sobrero discovered this unstable, sensitive liquid in the 1840s. Production requires mixing glycerin into a blend of nitric and sulfuric acids.  The mixing operation produces heat, which can cause a runaway explosive reaction if not controlled. Special acid-resistant vessels, often fashioned from lead, are required to handle the corrosive acids. 

Nitroglycerine can produce explosive velocities many thousands of times greater than black powder. Despite Sobrero’s warnings, harnessing the power of nitroglycerine was an irresistible challenge for men of vision and industry willing to risk death. By the 1860s, nitroglycerine had moved from scientific curiosity to a new technology. 

Dynamite Invented by Nobel

That same year, the Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel obtained the first of many patents showing how nitroglycerine could be tamed for practical use by impregnating it in clay or other material (“dope”). This new product, dynamite, was versatile, reliable and relatively safe to transport. Unlike black powder, dynamite was a patented chemical product. Because dynamite production required scientific understanding, technical expertise, and capital investment in large, sophisticated factories, it was to call forth one of the earliest recognizably modern industries.