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The History of Explosives

From Mary Bellis,
Your Guide to Inventors.
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Explosives are materials capable of a instantaneous release of gas or heat.

An explosive is a substance or a device that produces a volume of rapidly expanding gas that exerts sudden pressure on its surroundings.

There are three common types of explosives: chemical, mechanical, and nuclear. Mechanical explosions are physical reactions, for example the effects of compressed air.

Black Powder

It is unknown who invented the first explosive black powder. Black powder also known as gunpowder is a mixture of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal (carbon). It originated in China around the tenth century and was used in fireworks and signals. Black powder is the oldest form of a ballistic propellant and it was used with early muzzle-type firearms. Being a mechanical explosive that is messy, black powder was eventually replaced by cleaner smokeless powder explosives.

Safety Fuse

In 1831, William Bickford an English leather merchant invented the first safety fuse. Using a safety fuse made black powder explosives more practical and safer.


Nitroglycerin is a chemical explosive that was discovered by Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero in 1846. Nitroglycerinis a mix of nitric acid and glycerin. Nitroglycerin is a mix of nitric acid, sulphuric acid, and glycerol.


In 1846, Chemist Christian Schonbein discovered nitrocellulose or guncotton when he accidently spilled an acid mixture on a cotton apron and the apron exploded.


In 1863, TNT or Trinitrotoluene was invented by German chemist Joseph Wilbrand. It is considered a high explosive.

Blasting Cap

In 1865, Albert Nobel invented the blasting cap. The blasting cap provided a safer and dependable means of detonating nitroglycerin.


In 1867, Albert Nobel patented dynamite.

Smokeless Powders

In 1888, Albert Nobel invented a dense smokeless powder explosive called ballistite. In 1889, Sir James Dewar and Sir Frederick Abel invented another smokeless gunpowder called cordite. Cordite was made of of nitroglycerin, guncotton, and a petroleum substance gelatinized by addition of acetone.

Modern Explosives

In 1955, modern high explosives were developed. Explosives such as nitrate-fuel oil mixtures or ANFO and ammonium nitrate-base water gels now account for seventy percent of the explosive market.

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