Illustration of Nitroglycerin

1847 Nitroglycerin

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Ascanio Sobrero chemistry Illustration of Nitroglycerin


After discovering nitroglycerin Ascanio Sobrero pleaded that it never be used as an explosive. That didn’t stop Paul Vieille who invented the smokeless gunpowder Poudre B. That didn’t stop Alfred Nobel who developed Ballistite and dynamite. That didn’t stop Frederick Abel, James Dewar, and W. Kellner who developed cordite. Eventually, William Murrell discovered that a little nitroglycerin under the tongue alleviates angina pectoris, and saves lives.


Pure nitroglycerin is sensitive to shock and detonates with a pressure wave that moves at three times the speed of sound. It is dangerous to move, dangerous to handle, and when left alone degrades to be even more unstable. Experimenting with nitroglycerin in his father’s factory, Alfred’s brother Emil Oskar Nobel blew himself and coworkers to smithereens. Shipping nitroglycerin to blast a train tunnel through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Wells Fargo unloaded a crate in San Francisco and blew up fifteen people. The best precaution is to avoid making it, avoid experimenting with it, avoid shipping it, and avoid using it, except when prescribed by a doctor.

Better living through chemistry

Everything we eat is made of chemicals. Our clothes are made of chemicals. Our cars are made of chemicals. Our homes are made of chemicals. The earth is made of raw chemicals but most are cooked before consumption.

Ascanio Sobrero synthesized nitroglycerin working under Théophile-Jules Pelouze at the University of Turin. Another student of Pelouze was Alfred Nobel.

“Better Living Through Chemistry” was a variation of the advertising slogan of the DuPont company “Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry” in order to circumvent trademark infringement. Both were intended to promote the business of controlling the elements of everyday life for profit, but the former was also adopted by popular culture as a euphemism for the pleasures of using drugs.

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