Serendipitous Invention – Dynamite

Serendipitous Invention – DynamiteIntroduction: The Three Princes of Serendip, where Serendip is the Classical Persian name for Sri Lanka, is a fairy tale in which the protagonists ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’ Based on this, Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in 1754 to mean inventions or discoveries made by accident. Science and technology offer many anecdotes of serendipitous discoveries and inventions. Here is the second such story in a series about serendipitous, patented inventions.

The name of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel is recognised all over the world because of the Nobel Prizes that he established. He could do this because he had made a great fortune by inventing, among other things, Dynamite, a very useful explosive.

Alfred Nobel’s industrialist father, Immanuel Nobel, himself an accomplished inventor, wanted his son to learn more about engineering and business practices by working with the Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, a prominent inventor and engineer known for his work in naval technology. He was particularly famous for his design of the ironclad warship, USS Monitor. Thus, Alfred Nobel aged eighteen, arrived in the US in 1850.

Alfred gained invaluable experience in engineering, innovation, and business by working with Ericsson for four years. He worked on various projects, including designing and constructing machinery. This experience contributed to Alfred’s future development as an inventor and industrialist.

While in the US, Alfred saw great activity in the field of infrastructure – building of roads, railways, and dams, cutting through mountains. He realised how useful explosives would be in such projects. He started dreaming about providing such explosives for constructive purposes. In the mid-nineteenth century, explosives were primarily made from highly unstable and dangerous substances such as gunpowder. Alfred recognized the need for a safer and more reliable explosive that could be used in construction and mining without the risk of accidental detonation.

On his return from the US, Alfred opened a factory for manufacturing nitroglycerine*1 (also spelled nitrogycerin) a very common explosive in those days. However, nitroglycerine, being a liquid, was difficult to transport safely. Great care had to be exercised to see that it did not explode on the way. In 1864, there was a huge explosion in Nobels’ factory, which killed six people including Alfred Nobel’s brother Emil Nobel. The Swedish government refused permission to rebuild that factory and continue operations. Therefore, Alfred Nobel had to establish a factory at a remote location called Vinterviken so that he could work in an isolated place to continue to work on making nitroglycerine safe.

Alfred had been trying various materials in his experiments to stabilise nitroglycerine. One day, in 1866, he saw some nitroglycerine that had leaked on to or was spilled on soil. He observed that it had been absorbed by the soil. The soil happened to be of a type called diatomaceous earth. It is a soft rock composed of the fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of algae. He experimented further and found that he could, in fact, stabilise nitroglycerine, the highly explosive liquid compound, by mixing it with diatomaceous earth. It is a porous medium that absorbs the liquid nitroglycerine, immobilizing it effectively and reducing its sensitivity to shock and friction. This was an important breakthrough. The novel mixture could be shaped into sticks or cartridges for easy handling and transport.

Alfred patented this mixture in 1867 as “Dynamite”. Alfred made the public demonstration of this new explosive at a quarry in Redhill, Surrey, England. This mixture significantly reduced the risk of accidental detonation while maintaining the explosive power of nitroglycerine.

Alfred had constructive uses for dynamite in mind when he set out to invent a safe and convenient explosive which led to the invention of Dynamite. But it came to be used extensively in warfare. As a result, ironically, though he was a pacifist by nature, he had established nearly ninety factories for producing explosives that were used in warfare! The invention of dynamite and his investments in his brothers’ oil ventures in Baku, Azerbaijan and Cheleken, Turkmenistan had made Alfred wealthy. But he himself was deeply troubled by the destructive applications of his invention.

In 1888, when Alfred Nobel’s brother died – Ludwig Nobel – many newspapers mistakenly published obituaries of Alfred Nobel. One of them stated it as, “the merchant of death is dead.” It went on to say that he had invented a way of killing more people faster. This public perception of him disturbed Alfred.

The premature obituary prompted him to establish the Nobel Prizes through his will. He signed his will in 1895 and the inaugural prizes were given in 1901. The prizes were established for honouring those who have made significant contributions to humanity in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace*2.

The serendipitous invention of dynamite transformed the world with its practical applications in industry and its impact on innovation. Despite the controversy about its use in warfare, dynamite continues to be a symbol of Nobel’s ingenuity. Apart from the patent on Dynamite, Alfred Nobel was issued 355 patents internationally.

*1 Nitroglycerine is also used as a vasodilator, a medicine that opens or dilates blood vessels, to treat or as a prophylactic for angina pectoris in cardiovascular diseases.

*2 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences – award was established in 1968 by an endowment “in perpetuity” from Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank, to commemorate the bank’s 300th anniversary and not by Nobel himself. Laureates in the Prize in Economic Sciences are selected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Author: J L Anil Kumar

First Published By: Lexology Here