The most volatile, unstable, and dangerous substance ever known to man is still nitroglycerin. Pressure, temperature – even just a little vibration can unleash a massive explosion.
Even the men who discovered and pioneered its use learned firsthand the consequences of playing with something far more destructive than fire.
Meet Ascanio Sobrero.
In the 1840’s, he was a new professor at the University of Turin and became a student of Theophile Pelouze, who at the time was researching guncotton in his lab.
Ascanio began experimenting with various treatments of guncotton that could enhance its explosive capability, so he was well accustomed to flames and bangs in the lab and always took appropriate safety precautions. For what he was about to discover, however, there was no “ready.”
He theorized that a rich nitric acid compound combined with glycol would rapidly lose nitrogen when heated and cause a more powerful explosion. He had no idea how right he was.
He proceeded to carefully place a single drop of the compound – literally one eye drop – in a test tube. He sat opposite the tube at a large counter slightly further than the safe distance for a regular guncotton combustion. Then he put a small burner underneath the glass. He expected a slightly bigger bang than the average musket shot.
Before the flame was even close enough to touch the glass, Sobrero found himself completely engulfed in glass shards and flames. The explosion was instantaneous and could be heard from deep within all the surrounding buildings. He narrowly survived, but was left gruesomely and permanently scarred on both hands and the side of his face.
After his recovery, he was (understandably) completely terrified of his discovery. He kept the details of the new compound a secret as long as he could, but over a year later and facing increased scrutiny for the mysterious lab explosion, he finally published his findings. He called the substance “pyroglycerin” and adamantly warned in his paper and subsequent letters to would-be-experimenters that it was categorically too unstable and dangerous to be safely worked with by anyone on Earth. He was adamant that this new compound should be ignored and forgotten by humankind altogether. They took him at his word and for the next decade humanity was safe.
A new student.
In the late 1850’s, a brilliant young student joined Pelouze’s lab. His name was Alfred Nobel.
Nobel was determined to find a safe way to manufacture, distribute, and utilize the compound. Among his family’s businesses, the Nobels owned an armaments company and were struggling financially at the time. Young Alfred felt this new compound had the potential to both save his family and revolutionize the mining industry.
Like most young geniuses, the invincibility of youth convinced him that perhaps Sobrero and Pelouze were overreacting to the traumatic accident. Despite the sternest warnings and the banning of the substance in the lab, he eventually left the university and returned to his family’s factory to begin creating and experimenting with this pyroglycerine stuff himself.
Back at his family’s factory, Nobel worked with his father and brother trying various alterations to the formula to stabilize it. Their hope was to figure out a way to better protect it from things like pressure, vibration, or just a dirty look so that it could be used as an industrial explosive triggered only by direct heat from a safe distance.
They should have listened.
On a beautiful September morning in 1864, Alfred and his father were not at the factory, but his brother, Emil, was. While preparing a small vial of nitroglycerin (a vial containing roughly 100 drops) in the shed behind the factory, it exploded with enough force to destroy the shed and the rear side of the factory, instantly killing him and four unlucky factory workers 50ft away on the other side of the 3ft thick wall.
Alfred was devastated. Perhaps Emil had made a careless mistake, or perhaps Sobrero had been right all along. Maybe he should quit, No, he should finish the work Emil had died for.
Nobel and his father pressed on, determined to solve the problem. In 1867, he finally figured it out. By suspending nitroglycerin in clay, it became much more stable, or at least stable enough to carefully manufacture, transport, and handle. He called it “dynamite”. It was still nitroglycerin, and not even clay could make that safe.
In the years that followed, Nobel always humbly attributed the discovery of the key ingredient to Ascanio Sobrero, much to Sobrero’s anguish. (He did not, however, share the vast fortunes he made from dynamite and related inventions.)
Nobel justified his work by claiming that manufacturing dynamite and other nitroglycerin-based explosives for military use would result in world peace, saying famously:
“Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”
Unfortunately, that’s just not how nations think.
By 1887, tens of thousands of factory workers, miners, drivers, soldiers, and civilian passerbys had been killed in dynamite explosions. Some were accidents. Others were the result of significantly more gruesome and catastrophic military conflicts.
Watching the recurring news stories from afar, Sobrero said of the discovery:
“When I think of all the victims killed by nitroglycerin explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am ashamed to admit to be its discoverer.”
In 1888, one of Alfred’s remaining brothers passed away (not from an explosion). Several newspapers mistakenly published obituaries for Alfred rather than his brother. One French paper in particular titled theirs “The Merchant of Death is Dead”, reporting that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” All of the obituaries were along the same lines.
While it must certainly be strange for anyone to read their own obituary, this particular one shook Nobel to the core. He should have listened to Sobrero. What had he contributed to humanity? World peace hadn’t been brought, wars were now significantly worse, and so many thousands of poor, innocent people had been literally blown up.
To prevent being remembered solely as the “Merchant of Death”, he willed 94% of his accumulated wealth ($475,000,000 in today’s USD) upon his death to the creation of a foundation with an enormous prize to be periodically given to the greatest living contributors to world peace and various scientific fields.
In the same year Nobel earned the title “The Merchant of Death”, Sobrero had also passed away. At the University of Turin sits a plaque by the doors to the Ascanio Sobrero Center of Studies that remembers him as the “distinguished scientist who in this building first synthesized nitroglycerin, opening the way for its many applications.”
By “its many applications”, the plaque refers not only to Nobel’s dynamite, but the amazing ability of nitroglycerine to treat, relieve, and even cure a myriad of previously untreatable heart conditions.
Of course, having died before Nobel, Sobrero did not win the Nobel Prize.