• Video
  • 5 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Nobel and nitro, a dynamite story

Updated Tuesday 12th October 2010

Explore Nobel's development of dynamite and how a journalistic error was the probable catalyst in his foundation of The Nobel Prizes.

Love science? There's something for you in The Open University's range of science short courses

Alfred Nobel, tortured soul, chemist and ambitious businessman. His family set up a huge explosives factory, and made a fortune selling to the civil engineering industry. But it's dangerous business and Alfred's younger brother was killed in a nitroglycerin explosion, however, it was the death of his older brother that may, unpredictably, have led to him setting up The Nobel Prizes.

Watch

Copyright BBC

Read

 

Jem Stansfield

In the 1840s an Italian chemist discovered the powerful high explosive chemical nitroglycerine.  He urged people not to manufacture it but a young Swedish student came to hear about it.  His name was Alfred Nobel.

Professor Seymour Mauskopf, DukeUniversity

Nobel was a tortured soul, a kind of introspective, thoughtful, philosophical, even poetic individual.  Indeed he writes a lot of poetry in English, he writes philosophical meditations.  At the same time he is a very hardnosed, canny and successful businessman.

Jem Stansfield

Nitroglycerine may be a powerful explosive but it is also incredibly sensitive to shock, making it dangerous to manufacture.

Professor Seymour Mauskopf

There is a description of a major nitroglycerine explosion in Wales and one can imagine the situation of cans or containers of nitroglycerine being carried, presumably by cart, over bumpy roads and this is not a very safe thing to do and the nitroglycerine went off with tremendous and terrible effect.

Jem Stansfield

The Nobel family were tempted by the rewards that marketing such a powerful explosive to the civil engineering industry could bring but they had a lot to learn.  In their first year of manufacture their factory in Sweden exploded killing Alfred’s younger brother Emil.  This is the site of Nobel’s biggest explosives factory.  It’s at Ardeer on the West Coast of Scotland and at its height it was the biggest explosives factory in Europe.  Nobel liked it, one, because it was remote, but two, it was built entirely on sand, meaning he could create artificial landscapes like that.

Professor Seymour Mauskopf

There was lots and lots of danger and so for this reason you needed an isolated site, you needed a large scale site where you could separate the different buildings making the different components along the way of the process.  So, that if there were explosions the whole thing wouldn’t blow up, although even that happened.

Jem Stansfield

Nobel built what were called nitroglycerine hills.  Nitroglycerine was made in little huts on the top of each hill.  In each hut were two men; one to monitor the mixing reaction, the other to adjust the flow of water through a cooling jacket to keep the temperature in the right range.  Now, vigilance was vital.  The entire batch could self-detonate if allowed to go out of control.  For this reason one man had to always sit on a one-legged stool so there was no chance of him falling asleep on the job, as if sitting next to a vat of nitroglycerine was not stimulation enough!  Just a temperature rise in a tiny isolated place is enough to start nitroglycerine reacting.  This can actually come from a sudden shock, just squashing a bubble in the mixture.  For this reason nitroglycerine could not be safely pumped.  So, what they did was just let it flow under gravity from the huts at the top of the hill to the factories at the bottom.

Once the nitroglycerine was inside the factory it got stabilised.  Now, this was what was Nobel’s great achievement; he discovered that if he mixed his nitroglycerine with an absorbent clay, a bit like cat litter, it became a lot less sensitive, a lot easier to handle without going off in your hands.  The clay he used came as a fine powder called kieselguhr.  Once mixed together a dough-like substance was formed.  In fact it was kneaded by armies of women into the shapes required.  This new compound was called dynamite, and it was a revolution. 

Nobel’s struggle to tame the power of high explosives made him a very rich man and that might have been Nobel’s legacy if it weren’t for a mistake that occurred in 1888.  After the death of Alfred Nobel’s elder brother Ludvig, some newspapers mistakenly printed Alfred Nobel’s obituary instead, and where he was living in France at the time Le Figaro printed this small but damning paragraph.  It translates as, a man who it would be difficult to describe as a benefactor to humanity died yesterday in Cannes.  Now, reading that must have been a bit of a shock and it’s said that it made Nobel intent on changing his legacy to the world. 

To that end he left his vast fortune to setting up a foundation which would award prizes for literature, science, and peace.

5’34”

 

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

OU on the BBC: The Great British Year: Summer Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC (Photographer: Sam Stewart) article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: The Great British Year: Summer

A lazy summer for some, but for many species this is a period of peak activity.

Article
Julius Caesar: From stage to screen Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC / RSC video icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Julius Caesar: From stage to screen

Watch this exclusive video about the making of the BBC film version of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Julius Caesar 

Video
10 mins
article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

The Open University and The BBC

For many years The Open University has been co-producing programmes with The BBC.

Article
OU on the BBC: Ever Wondered About Food - Bananas Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: Ever Wondered About Food - Bananas

Ever Wondered About Food takes a look at bananas

Article
OU on the BBC: Silverville - Episode 1 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: Silverville - Episode 1

Is love in the air at the retirement village?

Article
OU Lecture 2007: Brewing Hubble Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech audio icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU Lecture 2007: Brewing Hubble

Part of the team that created the Hubble Space Telescope, John Zarnecki looks back at his time on the project - and shares some of the photographs.

Audio
5 mins
End of life care Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team video icon

TV, Radio & Events 

End of life care

Richard Wilson interviews palliative care nurse Deborah Murphy about the privilege and challenge of caring for people at the end of life

Video
5 mins
OU on the BBC: Music of the Primes Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: Music of the Primes

They keep you safe online - but that's just one of the many secrets of prime numbers.

Article
OU on the BBC: Empire - Making Ourselves At Home Creative commons image Icon James Cridland under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: Empire - Making Ourselves At Home

 From India to Leicester, Jeremy Paxman presents his view of how the British home adapated to the corners of Empire.

Article