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A Most Damnable Invention

Dynamite, nitrates and the making of the modern world



An Epic Quest

Fritz Haber was in Stockholm to receive a lucrative and prestigious prize. It was June 1, 1920, and he was fifty-two years old. The award of a Nobel Prize in chemistry ought to have been cause for celebration, a crowning recognition of his brilliant scientific work. But a shadow hung over the ceremony. The King of Sweden did not present the award, as he had done for the four other prize awards the previous November. Haber received his prize alone half a year later, the only exception since the inception of the awards fifteen years earlier, because of public outrage. French, American and British scientists denounced Haber's selection as prize winner, arguing he should have been ineligible for distinction due to his dishonorable, perhaps even immoral, wartime activities. They labeled Haber "the inventor of gas war."

None disputed his scientific credentials, however. Haber's work was universally recognized as being of profound importance, perhaps even the solution to world hunger. He had solved the nitrogen problem, the Holy Grail of scientific enigmas of the era, patenting a process whereby nitrogen compounds could be synthesized from the air, and had thereby set the stage for the interminable war of attrition between 1914 and 1918. Two German chemical plants at Oppau and Leuna, based on Haber's design, a triumph of scientific and technical genius for their time, were the secret weapons in Germany's arsenal that kept the nation fighting during the last years of the First World War by supplying at once the raw material for explosives and fertilizers. Haber's scientific breakthrough was also the conclusion of a centuries-long quest to sever the tether that bound farmers, miners and warriors to a scarce and somewhat elusive organic source of the mundane substance that is vital in improving crop yields in agriculture, yet is also at the heart of all explosives.

Humanity's quest to harness the destructive capacity of fire is a saga that extends back to the dawn of civilization. The use of highly combustible black powders-a crude blend of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter-spread west from China through the Middle East, arriving in Europe in the late thirteenth century. Influence in world affairs, the protection of trade routes, and resistance to being conquered soon depended upon having full use of supplies of black powder, which began to be called gunpowder. Although gunpowder did bring about social change, toppling feudalism and ushering in a new military structure, there was always a shortage when it was most needed and it was never powerful enough to fully enable the dreams of ambitious men. The true great era of explosives, when they radically and irrevocably changed the world, began with the remarkable intuition of a sallow Swedish chemist named Alfred Nobel in the 1860s.

Nobel made a discovery that refocused the direction of explosives research, altering centuries of work on refining black powders and opening a new frontier in the development of vastly more powerful "high" explosives. He sought and received a patent for his discovery and soon established factories across Europe and the United States. He struggled for years with industrial accidents that killed dozens of his employees and customers before he finally settled on a method to secure the safety of his product for storage and transportation. His new and improved product would have an immediate and profound impact upon Western Europe and the United States and eventually throughout the world.

Within a decade, he was one of the richest men in a society rapidly transforming under the power of his invention. Nobel's breakthrough discovery was how to stabilize and harness the explosive power of nitroglycerin, a mixture of sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and glycerin. He named the malleable putty dynamite, after the Greek dynamos, meaning "powerful," and perfected a reliable method of detonating it. Dynamite was the first truly safe and predictable explosive that had a strength vastly superior to gunpowder. It was one of the most significant technical developments in a century known for revolutionary inventions.

Dynamite swiftly transformed industry and warfare, becoming indispensable to both. It unleashed the power that enabled the monumental industrial development of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including hydro power, skyscrapers, and coal and oil exploration. Canals and railroads, mining and construction, tunnels and harbors, land mines and artillery: the explosive power of dynamite contributed to the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Even concrete could become a common construction material once limestone could be blasted from quarries. Dynamite liberated laborers from the tiresome and unremitting toil of slaving in mines and quarries or moving and leveling earth. What once took weeks, or existed only in the fanciful dreams of the overly optimistic, could now be done in moments. Dynamite and its derivatives were also used to construct greater and more powerful military tools, from land mines and bombs to artillery shells.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, science and industry remained tethered to the practical reality that no explosive could be made without the organic compound known colloquially as saltpeter - the crystals that form from decomposing vegetable and animal matter in hot, dry earth. Saltpeter (usually potassium nitrate, but also sodium nitrate or ammonium nitrate) was the ingredient most scarce and difficult to obtain, and as such it was sought after and coveted because there was never enough, particularly during times of war. The enduring quest for a stable and secure supply of nitrates has had almost as great an impact on world affairs as the explosives themselves. It is a story that takes us from the rural stables and privies of pre-industrial Europe, to the monopoly trading companies and plantations in eighteenth-century century India to the guano islands off Peru to the Atacama desert in northern Chile and the War of the Pacific in 1880. Nitrates were a substance as valuable in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as oil is in the twenty-first, and the cause of similar international jockeying and power politics. By the early twentieth century, the only commercially viable organic source of nitrates in the world that could meet the escalated demand brought about by the remarkable proliferation of high explosives and the dramatic increase in its use for agriculture was in Chile, half way around the world from its primary markets in western Europe and the eastern United States.

Explosives had become so vital to industry and the military, and fertilizers so critical to the agricultural economy, that maintaining access to the Chilean nitrate deposits was of strategic importance, and a legitimate concern for national defence. When war broke out in 1914, securing access to the Chilean nitrates, and denying that access to others, was one of the most pressing objectives in the early months of the conflict. A British naval victory seemed to presage an early end to the war by closing the sea-lanes to Germany and strangling at once both its food production and its production of armaments. But Haber's timely and brilliant scientific discovery on the eve of the war changed the course of the war and of world history.

Haber's work also provided the technological foundation for the unlimited explosive capacity of the bloodiest century in our history. There is a certain irony in Haber's being awarded the Nobel prize for work which, although continuing Nobel's own work on explosives (the foundation of the prize money in the first place) has unleashed an unlimited quantity of explosives for war and ultimately caused the deaths of millions of people - something that would have appalled Nobel had he lived to witness it. But although it was war that inspired Haber's chemical discovery, its greatest benefit has been in agriculture for creating synthetic fertilizers, one of the most significant, if under-appreciated, advancements of the twentieth century.

Next to Nobel's invention of dynamite, it is hard to imagine another single technological discovery or innovation that has had as long, and as lasting, an impact on human affairs and the shaping of our physical and social environment. Without Nobel's dynamite our modern economy would not exist, while Haber's creative genius has had unfathomable repercussions for agriculture and global population in the century that followed. The story of Nobel and Haber and their scientific innovation is one of the epic stories of human accomplishment. It is the tale of a remarkable technology, the historic impact of that technology, and the globe-spanning struggle for the raw material required to create and make use of it.