Asciano Sobrero is a name you’re unlikely to have heard of.
And yet his contribution to society was, if you’ll pardon the pun, explosive.
He was born in Casale Monferrato Italy in 1812 and worked as a chemist. In the 1840s, whilst working in a laboratory in Paris, he invented the substance known as nitroglycerin, an oily and highly explosive liquid.
Terrified by its enormous powers of destruction, Sobrero is later to have said of his creation,
“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.”
Whilst Sobrero saw no potential commercial use for it, in that same Parisian laboratory worked a Swedish man named, Alfred Nobel, who did.
Nobel believed that if he could find a way to tame its volatile nature then he would have a very effective replacement for the black gunpowder (first introduced from China in the 9th Century) used at the time.
Indeed, he had a vested interest in doing so because his family business was selling land mines and other explosives equipment.
Thus, on completion of his studies, Alfred started experimenting.
It was to cost him dearly.
During the course of his attempts to make Sobrero’s invention stable, he destroyed his own factory and killed a number of his workmen as well as his brother, Emil.
Yet the wide-eyed inventor was not deterred.
He continued to trial different approaches until one day he stumbled upon the perfect concoction of nitroglycerin and something called kieselguhr (or diatomaceous Earth) which acted as a stabilising agent.
The new material could be placed in cardboard tubes and Nobel designed a ‘blasting cap’ and fuse to allow the explosion to be controlled.
His new invention was patented in 1867 and originally sold as “Nobel’s Blasting Powder”. It was later changed to “dynamite”, from the Ancient Greek word dýnamis, meaning “power”.
Somewhat ironically, after successfully finding a way to commercialise Sobrero’s idea and using it to blow a lot of things up, Nobel presumably felt a sense of overwhelming guilt and ended up giving his name to the famous international prize celebrating peace.