Segment from Blasts from the Past

More Than Little Red Sticks?

In 1867, dynamite hit the market with a bang after Alfred Nobel figured out a way to create a powerful, yet stable explosive. Before Nobel came along, the go-to explosive was nitroglycerin. But according to Peter Liebhold, curator at the National Museum of American History, nitroglycerin’s instability caused more than a few accidents. Brian and Lizzie talk with Liebhold about dynamite’s precarious origins.

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Announcer: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Brian Balogh: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory. Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Brian Balogh. If you’re new to the podcast, each week my colleagues Joanne Freeman, Ed Ayers, Nathan Connolly and I explore a different aspect of American history. Now get ready, because today’s show begins with a bang.

Group: Wow.

Brian Balogh: Okay. Well, it worked.

Prof. Harkless: So a whole stick of dynamite; imagine multiplying by, like, 30 or 40.

Brian Balogh: 30 or 40 from that?

Prof. Harkless: Yeah.

Brian Balogh: We’re mixing things up a bit for this show. We’re producing this episode in collaboration with Sidedoor, a podcast from the Smithsonian. And I’m joined today by Lizzie Peabody. She’s the host of Sidedoor. Hey, Lizzie.

Lizzie Peabody: Hey, Brian.

Brian Balogh: Lizzie and I recently got to witness a terrific chemistry class at Howard University, and it ended with a big bang.

Lizzie Peabody: That’s right. And of course, we didn’t just go because we’re chemistry super fans; though I don’t know about you, Brian, you might be. We were there because in this show, we’re digging into the history of dynamite. And you know, Brian, before we got into this topic for the episode, I really thought I knew dynamite, but it turns out there’s a lot more to it than I expected.

Brian Balogh: Well, most people know dynamite as the little red sticks with fizzing fuses, brought to us by Loony Toons. But I guess not many people know why it was such an important invention.

Lizzie Peabody: And how it shaped the country in pretty unorthodox ways. But first, back to that explosion.

Brian Balogh: Oh, boy. The explosion. I was really excited to come up to see you recently at Sidedoor headquarters in Washington, D.C., but first we made a stop to see Professor John Harkless, who teaches chemistry at Howard University.

Lizzie Peabody: Yeah. He agreed to create an explosion just for us. We met him outside on the quad, which is this beautiful grassy space on campus between the physics, biology, and chemistry buildings.

Brian Balogh: It turns out that Howard students call that place Death Valley. And they call it that because that’s where GPAs go to die.

Lizzie Peabody: Right. And apparently it’s also where the explosions happen.

Brian Balogh: The scene looked like this. A small crowd of students had gathered there to watch Professor Harkless launch one of those standard issue dorm trash cans high up into the air using pressurized liquid nitrogen.

Lizzie Peabody: Right. So it wasn’t actual dynamite, but Harkless explained that all explosions basically amount to the same thing, a sudden release of energy.

Prof. Harkless: So what you just heard is one of the ways in which explosive energy gets released. If you release it slowly, then you get something nice and easy, like burning gasoline to make your cars go; or generating electricity that makes all our devices work from our batteries. But if you release it really quickly, then you can get heat, you can get light, you can get pressure; you can get all these different expressions of energy.

Brian Balogh: So this time on BackStory, we bring you two tales of dynamite.

Lizzie Peabody: One, the story of how sculptors harnessed its explosive power to create a nuanced work of art.

Brian Balogh: And the other, how it was seized by a political movement to send a rather unsubtle message.

Lizzie Peabody: To start, we wanted to get more context on when and why dynamite was invented, and its impact on the United States.

Brian Balogh: And what better place to go than the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History?

Lizzie Peabody: Peter, it’s so good to finally meet you.

Peter Liebhold: Nice to meet you.

Brian Balogh: Hi, Brian Balogh.

Peter Liebhold: Nice to meet you.

Brian Balogh: Glad to meet you, Peter. Come on in.

Lizzie Peabody: Peter Liebhold is the Smithsonian curator of technology and industrial history, and he says to understand dynamite, you have to understand what came before it; an extremely volatile explosive called nitroglycerin.

Peter Liebhold: Nitroglycerin is incredibly more powerful than black powder. If you look at the history of nitroglycerin, people are constantly being killed.

Brian Balogh: Nitroglycerin was invented in 1847, about 20 years before dynamite. At that time, it was the only high-power explosive around. Explosives had been around since 9th century China, but black powder and gun powder didn’t pack nearly the punch that nitroglycerin did.

Lizzie Peabody: That made it incredibly valuable at a time when the country was expanding rapidly. The Transcontinental railroad was under construction, so being able to blast tunnels through rock quickly was incredibly important. But here’s the thing; nitroglycerin was really hard to transport. Liebhold told us about this one time when a shipment of nitroglycerin arrived in a warehouse in San Francisco.

Peter Liebhold: And it’s just a crate and it’s leaking, so they decided to open it up and see what’s leaking. They were opening the crate with crowbars and it detonated, and it killed about a dozen people. Really very horrific.

Lizzie Peabody: It was pretty gruesome.

Peter Liebhold: People definitely didn’t understand it. It’s fine when it’s fine, and when it’s not, you’re gone. And so, really it’s not forgiving.

Brian Balogh: Engineers needed an explosive that was as powerful as nitroglycerin but safer to handle.

Lizzie Peabody: Enter Alfred Nobel. Yes, the Nobel Prize guy.

Peter Liebhold: Alfred Nobel is by anybody’s description a weird dude. He’s incredibly creative, he’s very argumentative, he’s taciturn, he’s morbid. He’s really not who you want as your best friend.

Brian Balogh: But he is who you want inventing your explosives.

Lizzie Peabody: Yeah. Nobel figures out that he can stabilize nitroglycerin by mixing it with a chalky powder called diotenacios earth. That combination forms a paste that stabilizes the nitroglycerin. It’s way easier to transport without accidentally blowing people up.

Brian Balogh: Nobel also invented the blasting cap, which attaches to a fuse. And what that means is that people can detonate the dynamite from a safe distance.

Lizzie Peabody: And dynamite is basically just these ingredients packaged into a tiny cylinder wrapped in paper. It’s stable and relatively safe.

Brian Balogh: And so in 1867, dynamite hits the market for the first time and it’s a huge success. Here’s Peter Liebhold again.

Peter Liebhold: In 1867, Nobel produces 11 tons of dynamite, which is a fair amount of dynamite. And by 1874, he’s got 3,120 tons of dynamite that he’s produced.

Lizzie Peabody: So people, the people loved it.

Peter Liebhold: The people loved it. Dynamite was the boss.

Brian Balogh: Dynamite became the go-to tool for tunneling and mining. But as Doctor Frankenstein soon found out, once your invention leaves the lab, there’s no controlling where it goes next.

Peter Liebhold: One of the things that are really fascinating about innovation is that things don’t necessarily turn out as people expect they will, and that folks are very creative about finding new uses for new ideas. And sometimes they’re positive and sometimes they’re destructive.

Lizzie Peabody: Sometimes they’re positive and sometimes they’re destructive. Brian, that seems like a perfect launch point to detonate a couple of explosive stories, don’t you think?

Brian Balogh: You bet. We’ve each brought a terrific story that’s surprising in some way. Why don’t you go first, Lizzie?