Ascanio Sobrero and the Power of Nitroglycerine

Ascanio Sobrero (18121888)

On October 12, 1812Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero was born. During his experimental research he discovered the explosive compound nitroglycerine. Sobrero was horrified by the destructive potential of his discovery, and made no effort to develop that power himself. Possibly, the only name that pops up in your mind when you think of the explosive nitroglycerine is Alfred Nobel, the guy who also funded the eponymous prices for advancement in science as well as for world peace. But, it was not Alfred Nobel, who really invented the explosive. In fact he was like Ascanio Sobrero a student of Théophile-Jules Pelouze in Paris. Later he patented, commercialized, and profited from Sobrero’s discoveries and developed the easier and safer to use dynamite.

Ascanio Sobrero was born in Casale Monferrato, Italy. There is not much to find in the sources about his youth. He was studying medicine in Turin and then in Paris under Théophile-Jules Pelouze, an industrial chemist and the author of several technical handbooks, one of the pioneers in the chemistry of nitrocellulose (i.e. the explosive material guncotton). Subsequently, Sobrero studied chemistry at the University of Gießen with Justus Liebig, and earned his doctorate in 1832. In 1845 he became professor at the University of Turin.

Around 1846, during his researches Sobrero discovered nitroglycerine by adding glycerol to a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids. Pure nitroglycerin is a colorless, oily, somewhat toxic liquid having a sweet, burning taste. He tried heating a drop in a test tube, whereupon it exploded, sending glass fragments everywhere, scarring his face and hands. Initially Sobrero called it “pyroglycerine”, and warned vigorously against its use in his private letters and in a journal article, stating that it was extremely dangerous and impossible to handle. Sobrero is quoted to have said

When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerine explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to be its discoverer.” 

In fact, Sobrero was so frightened by what he created that he kept it a secret for over a year. Pyroglycerine soon came to be known generally as nitroglycerin, or blasting oil.

Because of the risks inherent in its manufacture and the lack of dependable means for its detonation, nitroglycerin was largely a laboratory curiosity. Until another of Pelouze’s students, the young Alfred Nobel, who returned to the Nobel family’s defunct armaments factory, began experimenting with the material around 1860. It did, indeed prove to be very difficult to discover how to handle it safely. In the 1860s Nobel received several patents around the world for mixtures, devices and manufacturing methods based on the explosive power of nitroglycerine, eventually leading to the invention of dynamite, ballistite and gelignite from which he made a fortune.

Although Nobel always acknowledged and honored Sobrero as the man who had discovered nitroglycerine, Sobrero was not only dismayed by the uses to which the explosive had been put, but also on occasion claimed that he was not given sufficient recognition. Since the 1860s, nitroglycerin has been used as an active ingredient in the manufacture of explosives, mostly dynamite, and as such it is employed in the construction, demolition, and mining industries. Similarly, since the 1880s, it has been used by the military as an active ingredient, and a gelatinizer for nitrocellulose, in some solid propellants, such as Cordite and Ballistite. But, since 1878 nitroglycerin is also used medically as a potent vasodilator to treat heart conditions, such as angina pectoris and chronic heart failure.

At yovisto, you can learn about the inglorious application of Ascanio Sobrero’s as well as Alfred Nobel’s invention in the hands of political radicals. Yale Prof. John Merrimen will talk about the ‘Dynamite Club: The Annarchists‘ in one of his history lectures

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