A Brief History of Explosives

Explosives are considered to be a mixture of black powder, sulfur, and charcoal. Black powder itself is a mixture of saltpeter or potassium nitrate. Charcoal is a basic form of carbon. By combining these ingredients an explosive reaction is created.

Uses of Black Powder in Explosives
Black powder is the oldest form of a ballistic propellant. It is also known as gun powder. It is said to have been used by the Chinese in fireworks starting around the tenth century. When black powder is ignited, a reaction occurs in which a group of gases is generated. Energy, in the form of heat, causes those gases to expand rapidly which produces an explosive force. The key is the faster the reaction the more powerful the effectiveness.

Black powder was often used in mining operations as it was poured down cracks or drilled holes that were ignited and blasted apart. The first type of smokeless powder had a light color, but this new mixture produced a dark black smoke giving it the name black powder. The powder was often referred to as gun powder, blasting powder, or cannon powder depending on its particular use.

Development of Explosives
The first safety fuse was invented by William Brickford in 1831. He discovered that the use of a safety fuse with the black powder created a more practical and safer explosive.

More than 10 years later, an explosive in the chemical form of nitroglycerin was discovered by Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero. In 1846 chemist Christian Schonbein discovered another form of chemical explosives called nitrocellulose or guncotton.

Trinitrotoluene or TNT made its appearance in 1863 thanks to the German chemist Joseph Wilbrand. In 1865 Albert Novel invented the blasting cap which created a safer and more consistent means for detonating nitroglycerin. The next year, he received his patent for dynamite.

Over the next several years, Nobel continued working with the explosive properties and created a smokeless powder called ballistite. In 1889 cordite, also a smokeless powder, was discovered by Sir James Dewar and Sir Frederick Abel.

In 1955, the modern high explosives were developed. These modern forms included nitrate-fuel oil mixtures known as ANFO as well as ammonium nitrate-based water gels. These make up today’s market of explosives.

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