Alfred Nobel and the History of Dynamite

Explosion At Quarry
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The Nobel prizes were established by none other than inventor Alfred Nobel (1833–1896). But besides being the namesake behind one of the most prestigious awards given annually for academic, cultural and scientific achievements, Nobel is also well-known for making it possible for people to blow things up.    

Before all that, however, the Swedish industrialist, engineer, and inventor built bridges and buildings in his nation's capital Stockholm. It was his construction work that inspired Nobel to research new methods of blasting rock. So in 1860, Nobel first started experimenting with an explosive chemical substance called nitroglycerin.

Nitroglycerin and Dynamite

Nitroglycerin was first invented by Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero (1812–1888) in 1846. In its natural liquid state, nitroglycerin is very volatile. Nobel understood this and in 1866 discovered that mixing nitroglycerin with silica would turn the liquid into a malleable paste called dynamite. One advantage that dynamite had over nitroglycerin was that it could be cylinder-shaped for insertion into the drilling holes used for mining.

In 1863, Nobel invented the Nobel patent detonator or blasting cap for detonating nitroglycerin. The detonator used a strong shock rather than heat combustion to ignite the explosives. The Nobel Company built the first factory to manufacture nitroglycerin and dynamite.

In 1867, Nobel received U.S. patent number 78,317 for his invention of dynamite. To be able to detonate the dynamite rods, Nobel also improved his detonator (blasting cap) so that it could be ignited by lighting a fuse. In 1875, Nobel invented blasting gelatin, which was more stable and powerful than dynamite and patented it in 1876. In 1887, he was granted a French patent for "ballistite," a smokeless blasting powder made from nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. While Ballistite was developed as a substitute for black gunpowder, a variation is used today as a solid fuel rocket propellant.


On October 21, 1833, Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden. His family moved to St. Petersburg in Russia when he was nine years old. Nobel prided himself on the many countries he lived in during his lifetime and considered himself a world citizen.

In 1864, Nobel founded Nitroglycerin AB in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1865, he built the Alfred Nobel & Co. Factory in Krümmel near Hamburg, Germany. In 1866, he established the United States Blasting Oil Company in the U.S. In 1870, he established the Société général pour la fabrication de la dynamite in Paris, France.

When he died in 1896, Nobel stipulated the year before in his last will and testament that 94% of his total assets should go toward the creation of an endowment fund to honor achievements in physical science, chemistry, medical science or physiology, literary work and service toward peace. Hence, the Nobel prize is awarded yearly to people whose work helps humanity. In total, Alfred Nobel held 355 patents in the fields of electrochemistry, optics, biology, and physiology.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Bown, Stephen R. "A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the Modern World." New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005. 
  • Carr, Matt. "Cloaks, Daggers and Dynamite." History Today 57.12 (2007): 29–31.
  • Fant, Kenne. "Alfred Nobel: A Biography." Ruuth, Marianne, trans. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991.
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Bellis, Mary. "Alfred Nobel and the History of Dynamite." ThoughtCo, May. 10, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, May 10). Alfred Nobel and the History of Dynamite. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Alfred Nobel and the History of Dynamite." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).