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A Short History Of Explosives
It may never be known with certainty who invented black powder, the first explosive. The mixture is thought to have originated in China in the 9th century, but its use there was almost exclusively in fireworks and signals. It is possible that the Chinese also used black powder in bombs for military purposes. There is written record that in the mid-13th century, they put it in bamboo tubes to propel stone projectiles.

Some evidence suggests that the Arabs invented black powder, and by about 1300 had developed the first real gun, a bamboo tube reinforced with iron, which used a charge of black powder to fire an arrow.
Some scholars attribute the discovery of black power to the English medieval scholar, Roger Bacon, while others attribute the invention of firearms to the early 14th-century German monk Berthold Schwarz. In any case, firearms are frequently mentioned in 14th-century manuscripts from many countries, and there is a record of the shipment of guns and powder from Ghent to England in 1314.
By the 17th century, black powder came to be used in Europe for peaceful purposes, such as in mining operations in Germany and Hungary. For various reasons, such as high cost, lack of suitable boring implements, and fear of roof collapse, the use of black powder in mining did not spread rapidly, though it was widely accepted by 1700. The first application in civil engineering was in the Malpas Tunnel of the Canal du Midi in France in 1679.
For 300 years, the unvarying composition of black powder has been approximately 75 percent saltpeter (potassium nitrate), 15 percent charcoal, and 10 percent sulfur. Lammot du Pont, an American industrialist, started making sodium nitrate powder in 1858. It became popular in a short time because, though it did not produce as high a quality explosive as potassium nitrate, it was suitable for most mining and construction applications and was much less expensive.
Nitroglycerin, the most powerful explosive in common use, was discovered in 1846 by the Italian scientist Ascanio Sobrero. Although used as a headache remedy under the name glonoin, it proved too difficult and dangerous for practical blasting purposes until Alfred Nobel of Sweden began his experiments in 1862. Nobel's brother died in an explosion during the tests, and Nobel was forced to move his laboratory to a barge anchored out in the middle of a lake. Nobel refused to abandon his labors, however, and in 1866, he was rewarded by the invention of dynamite. This is today the commonest and safest of the high explosives, for the first time enabling man to blast away great masses of rock and other obstacles with comparative safety.
Dynamite consists of a mixture of the liquid nitroglycerin with some absorbent substance, or "dope," giving it a solid form. Ordinary dynamite is usually made in sticks from 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) in diameter and about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long. These consist of brown paper wrappers coated with paraffin to keep out moisture. If a small quantity is set on fire free from pressure or vibration of any kind, it will burn, but, if the least blow strikes it while burning, it will explode with great violence. Dynamite is usually set off with a detonator, or blasting cap.
Destructive in nature, explosives are also of immense value in many peaceful pursuits, such as in mining, quarrying, and engineering enterprises and in making fireworks, signal lights, and rockets. They are used to project lifelines to ships in distress off storm-beaten shores or to the roofs of burning buildings; to cast oil upon rough seas; and to break up ice jams. When pile drivers are not available, their work can be done by exploding dynamite on an iron plate placed on top of the piles. Farmers find explosives useful for breaking up boulders, blowing out stumps, felling trees, and loosening soil.
Explosives are sometimes used to bond various metals to each other. For example, when silver was removed from United States coinage, much of the so-called sandwich metal that replaced it was obtained by the explosive bonding of large slabs, which were then rolled down to the required thickness. These slabs are placed parallel to each other and approximately 0.25 inch (6.4 millimeters) apart. An explosive developed especially for the purpose is placed on the top slab, and its detonation slams the slabs together with such force that they become welded. Stainless steel is often joined to ordinary steel in this manner.
Finally, the very fine industrial-type diamonds used for grinding and polishing are produced by the carefully controlled action of explosives on carbon.
Excerpted from information provided at


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