Today In Science History – October 12 – Ascanio Sobrero

Ascanio Sobrero

Ascanio Sobrero (1812-1888) Discovered nitroglycerin.

October 12 is Ascanio Sobrero’s birthday. Sobrero was the Italian chemist who discovered nitroglycerin.

Sobrero was a student under Théophile-Jules Pelouze. Pelouze’s laboratory specialized in studying nitrocellulose and guncotton. Sobrero synthesized a compound he called pyroglycerin by adding nitric and sulfuric acid to glycerin. Pyroglycerin was an oily, heavy and extremely explosive liquid. Its explosive nature was due to the high nitrogen content along with multiple weak oxygen and hydrogen bonds to supply fuel to its combustion. It was so explosive, Sobrero believed there was no safe means of handling the chemical and it should never be used as an explosive.

Not that this warning stopped many people. Construction and mining companies needed a more potent explosive than common black powder. Nitroglycerin, as it became to be known, was much more powerful than black powder. Many companies looked to the new chemical for their needs. While nitroglycerin would prove to be effective, it also caused many accidents and deaths due to its unstable nature. Simply shipping containers of nitroglycerine proved fatal to one Wells Fargo office in San Francisco when one crate exploded, destroying the office and killing 15 people.

One of Sobrero’s students would find a solution. Alfred Nobel discovered nitroglycerin was easily absorbed by diatomaceous earth. This mixture would become a thick paste that could easily be worked without blowing yourself up. This paste would lead him to invent the explosive dynamite. Dynamite would revolutionize the explosives industry and make Nobel a wealthy man.

Nitroglycerine wasn’t just used to blow stuff up. Sobrero warned against ingesting nitroglycerin because it causes severe headaches. American homeopathic doctor Constantin Hering took that to mean small dilute doses of nitroglycerin should cure headaches. Another doctor, William Murrell found small doses of nitroglycerin could be used to treat angina. It proved a potent cure that would dilate blood vessels and deliver increased oxygen to the heart, relieving the pressure caused by angina. To avoid patients worrying about ingesting a notoriously dangerous explosive, the name was changed to it’s scientific name: glycerol trinitrate.

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