Today In Science History – October 12 – Ascanio Sobrero and Nitroglycerin

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 were 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 its scientific name: glycerol trinitrate.

Notable Science Events for October 12

1965 – Paul Hermann Müller died.

Paul Hermann Müller

Paul Hermann Müller (1899 – 1965)
Nobel Foundation

Müller was a Swiss chemist who was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was a highly effective poison for anthropods. It was used with great effect against mosquitoes and lice for many years. Unfortunately, the environmental effects are cumulative. DDT spraying kept adding the toxin to soil and water where it was beginning to have effects on wildlife and food. This led to DDT being banned in the United States in 1972.

1964 – Voskhod 1 launched.

Voskhod 1 Capsule

Voskhod 1 capsule on display at the London Science Museum.
Andrew Gray

The Soviet Union launched their Voskhod 1 rocket carrying three cosmonauts into orbit. This was the first time more than one person went into space at a time and the first mission to carry a scientist. The mission was designed to beat the United States’ Gemini program to the multi-person crew milestone. In their hurry to accomplish this, the crew flew without spacesuits, ejection seats or escape plan. The capsule returned to Earth after 16 orbits the next day.

1865 – Arthur Harden was born.

Arthur Harden

Arthur Harden (1865 – 1940)
Nobel Foundation

Harden was an English biochemist who shares the 1929 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Hans Karl August Simon von Euler-Chelpin for their investigations into the process of fermentation and the actions of enzymes during fermentation. His research was on the chemical actions of yeast cells on glucose.

1862 – Theodor Heinrich Boveri was born.

Theodor Boveri

Theodor Boveri (1862 – 1915)

Boveri was a German cytologist who showed chromosomes are separate, continuous entities within the nucleus of a cell and one chromosome is responsible for certain hereditary traits and the importance of cytoplasm. He also theorized, with Edouard van Beneden, that the egg and sperm cells contribute an equal number of chromosomes to the new cell created during fertilization. Boveri introduced the term centrosome to describe the division center for a cell during cell division.

1812 – Ascanio Sobrero was born.

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