Alfred Nobel receives the first of 355 patents, a Swedish patent for preparing nitroglycerin, in 1863. He died in 1896, leaving his considerable estate as an endowment for annual awards in chemistry, physics, medicine or physiology, literature, and peace.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the growing understanding of gases and the reactions that produce them was of great importance to modern industrial society. Not least was the production of explosives—substances that undergo reactions involving the release of heat and rapidly expanding gaseous products. In making black powder Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and E. I. du Pont were improving a technology known to Western cultures since the 14th century and even earlier in China and the Far East. By the mid-19th century much more powerful explosives were being created by treating various organic substances with nitric acid. Among these new explosives was dynamite, a stabilized form of nitroglycerin, invented in 1867 by Alfred Nobel (1833–1896). One thousand times more powerful than black powder, it expedited the building of roads, tunnels, canals, and other construction projects worldwide.
Nobel became wealthy by setting up companies and selling patent rights to dynamite and related products worldwide. The DuPont Company in the United States became one of the chief companies associated with Nobel. In 1875 he created blasting gelatin, a colloidal suspension of nitrocellulose in glycerin, and in 1887 ballistite, a nearly smokeless powder especially suitable for propelling military projectiles. Nobel, the man who had tried to make handling explosives safe for workmen, was deeply troubled by the destructiveness of his inventions and became concerned with establishing worldwide peace.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation