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The first chemical explosive was gunpowder, or black powder, a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate (or saltpeter). The Chinese invented it approximately 1,000 years ago. For hundreds of years, gunpowder was used mainly to create fireworks. Remarkably, the Chinese did not use gunpowder as a weapon of war until long after Europeans began using it to shoot stones and spear-like projectiles from tubes and, later, metal balls from cannon and guns.

Europeans probably learned about gunpowder from travelers from the Middle East. Clearly by the beginning in the thirteenth century gunpowder was used more often to make war than to make fireworks in the West. The English and the Germans manufactured gunpowder in the early 1300s. It remained the only explosive for 300 hundred years, until 1628, when another explosive called fulminating gold was discovered.

Gunpowder changed the lives of both civilians and soldiers in every Western country that experienced its use. (Eastern nations like China and Japan rejected the widespread use of gunpowder in warfare until the nineteenth century.) Armies and navies who learned to use it first—the rebellious Czech Taborites fighting the Germans in 1420 and the English Navy fighting the Spanish in 1587, for example—scored influential early victories. These victories quickly forced their opponents to learn to use gunpowder as effectively. This changed the way wars were fought, and won, and so changed the relationship between peoples and their rulers. Royalty could no longer hide behind stone walls in castles. Gunpowder blasted the walls away and helped, in part, to end the loyalty and servitude of peasants to local lords and masters. Countries with national armies became more important than local rulers as war became more deadly, due in large part to the use of gunpowder. It was not until the seventeenth century that Europeans began using explosives in peacetime to loosen rocks in mines and clear fields of boulders and trees.

Other chemical explosives have been discovered since the invention of gunpowder and fulminating gold. The most common of these are chemical compounds that contain nitrogen such as azides, nitrates, and other nitrocompounds.

In 1846 Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero (1812-1888) invented the first modern explosive, nitroglycerin, by treating glycerin with nitric and sulfuric acids. Sobrero's discovery was, unfortunately for many early users, too unstable to be used safely. Nitroglycerin readily explodes if bumped or shocked. This inspired Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) in 1862 to seek a safe way to package nitroglycerin. In the mid-1860s, he succeeded in mixing it with an inert absorbent material. His invention was called dynamite.

Dynamite replaced gunpowder as the most widely used explosive (aside from military uses of gunpowder). But Nobel continued experimenting with explosives and in 1875, invented a gelatinous dynamite, an explosive jelly. It was more powerful and even a little safer than the dynamite he had invented nine years earlier. The addition of ammonium nitrate to dynamite further decreased the chances of accidental explosions. It also made it cheaper to manufacture.

These and other inventions made Nobel very wealthy. Although the explosives he developed and manufactured were used for peaceful purposes, they also greatly increased the destructiveness of warfare. When he died, Nobel used the fortune he made from dynamite and other inventions to establish the Nobel prizes, which were originally awarded for significant accomplishment in the areas of medicine, chemistry, physics, and peace.

Continued research has produced many more types of chemical explosives than those known in Nobel's time: percholates, chlorates, ammonium nitrate-fuel oil mixtures (ANFO), and liquid oxygen explosives are examples.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideExplosives - History, Controlling Explosives, Newer Explosives, Types Of Explosives And Their Sources Of Power, Four Classifications Of Chemical Explosives