Accidental Inventions

 

Dynamite

This inventor is known the world over by the prize that bears his name. His start, however, was anything but glorious. Before achieving international fame, Alfred Nobel was famous for blowing up his own factories. A desire to save his factories, as well as his workers, led Nobel to invent Dynamite.

Fun Facts
  • Nitroglycerin detonates at a rate of 4,900 to 25,400 feet per second.
  • Peanuts are one of the ingredients of dynamite.
  • Three United States Presidents have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter Jr.)
  • Florence Nightingale pioneered nursing during the Crimean war.
  • North America uses approximately 25 million pounds of dynamite each year.
  • Over 400,000 pounds of granite were blasted off of Mount Rushmore using dynamite.
  • Nobel wrote poetry and drama and even seriously considered becoming a writer.
  • The contents of Nobel's will became his greatest "invention" - the Nobel Prize.
  • At the time of his death, Alfred Nobel had been awarded 355 patents.

Beginnings

Alfred Nobel was born on October 21st, 1833 to a poor family in Stockholm, Sweden. His family struggled until 1837, when Nobel's father, Immanuel, left to start a new career in Russia. Nobel's mother started a grocery store that meagerly supported the children, all of whom were still in Sweden.

In Russia, Immanuel Nobel built simple mines for the Russian navy - submerged barrels filled with gunpowder. Immanuel was so successful that he soon sent for his family. In 1842, 9 year-old Alfred Nobel and his family left Sweden to meet Immanuel in St. Petersburg.

Russian law at the time prohibited non-native citizens from public education, so young Alfred was privately tutored. Alfred showed a diverse talent: he was excellent in literature and poetry, as well as chemistry and physics. By the time he was 17, he'd mastered English, French, German, Swedish, and Russian.

Paris

In his late teens, Alfred set off for Paris to study chemistry. It was here that he met Ascanio Sobrero, the discoverer of Nitroglycerine.

Nitroglycerine is an extremely sensitive liquid explosive. Because so little was known about it in the 1860s, it also appeared quite erratic - sometimes just bumping it was enough to set it off, other times it appeared completely inert.

Because it is so much more powerful than gunpowder, nitroglycerine was incredibly useful for demolition, mining, and construction blasting. Unfortunately, because of its sensitivity, it was unpredictable and thus, uncontrollable. Accidental detonations were a fact of life when working with nitroglycerine.

Crimean War

In 1852, Nobel returned to St. Petersburg to help his father with business. Russia invaded Turkey in 1853, starting the Crimean War. As a result, the Russian Navy had a high demand for the mines that Alfred's father manufactured. The Nobels amassed quite a bit of money during the three-year war.

In 1863 the family relocated back to Sweden, finally settling in Heleneborg, just outside Stockholm.

Nobel was still interested by what he'd learned from Sobrero in Paris, and later that year he and his family began experimenting with Nitroglycerine. During this time Nobel also began experimenting with alternative detonation methods.

Prior to 1865, explosives were detonated by a fuse, which was basically a waterproof rope with gunpowder in the middle, which was ignited at one end and eventually burned down to the other end.

Initial Ignition Principle

What Nobel began working on became known as the "Initial Ignition Principle." Rather than simply igniting the primary explosive, the fuse would ignite a blasting cap, which would in turn detonate the primary explosive. This made demolition safer and more controllable.

Disaster Strikes

Nobel's discovery was well on the way to making nitroglycerine a safer substance to work with when disaster struck.

In 1864, an accident occurred in the Heleneborg plant, killing 4 employees - including Nobel's brother Emil. Shortly thereafter Nobel's father suffered a stroke and was no longer able to work. Further, a new law outlawed production of explosives in the residential areas near Stockholm.

Never one to be discouraged, Nobel temporarily moved his operation to a barge, where business quickly picked back up. Nobel was soon able to build a factory in nearby Vinterviken in 1865.

Accidents Continue

Alfred knew he was on to something with nitroglycerine, if only he could make it safer to work with. He was making enough money that in 1865 he established a second factory at Krummel in Germany, but his factories were still plagued by accidents.

Two serious accidents in 1866 destroyed the factory at Krummel making safety his number one concern; Nobel applied his considerable intellect and drive to the task of rendering nitroglycerine safer.

Sawdust

While the factory at Krummel was being rebuilt, Nobel once again moved production onto a barge. It was on this barge that he would make his most famous discovery.

According to lore: One afternoon Nobel was working with nitroglycerine, when the vial slipped out of his hand! Everything slowed down as Nobel watched the vial crash to the floor. The resultant explosion would certainly kill him. Fortunately the nitroglycerine landed on sawdust, and rather than explode, the liquid was soaked up.

Curious, Nobel collected the sawdust-nitroglycerine mixture and studied it. Although it wasn't as powerful as he desired, Nobel succeeded in detonating a small amount.

Nobel realized that mixing nitroglycerine with an inert substance held the answer to its stability. He tried everything he could think of - charcoal powder, black powder, wood flour, sawdust, and cement - but the results were unsatisfactory.

Mud!

The answer was right outside his door: the mud around Krummel is not ordinary mud, rather it is diatomaceous earth, a combination of crushed fossils and marine life. Nobel tried it and it worked! at last Nobel had his stable explosive. He was granted patents for Dynamite in 1867, just four years after beginning production on nitroglycerine in Heleneborg.

Booming Business

Now that Nobel had a stable explosive that was reasonably safe to manufacture, his factories increased production on an epic scale, expanding to factories all over eastern Europe and Scotland. In 1875 Nobel invented blasting gelatine - considered by many to be among his most important inventions - which increased the flexibility of demolitions across a wide range of applications.

In all, Alfred Nobel founded factories in over 90 locations in 20 different countries. Working feverishly until his death in 1896, Nobel left two very big legacies: the Dyno Nobel corporation, one of the world's largest chemical companies, and the Nobel Prize, given annually to individuals, regardless of nationality, who have contributed the most to literature, physics, chemistry, medicine, and peace.