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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.

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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.


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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.







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