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Chinese gunpowder

The exploitation of chemical explosive power brought people both technical progress and unspeakable suffering. The Chinese let it rip as early as the 10th century. Resourceful alchemists were the first to recognize that the mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur contained explosive forces and invented gunpowder.

Fireworks rockets and incendiary devices quickly spread across the country. The hissing and spraying projectiles were used not only for general amusement, but also to deter enemies.

With great success: Above all, the bamboo tubes filled with gunpowder were feared and can be described as the first flamethrowers in history.

From Asia, gunpowder began its triumphal march to Europe. More and more commercial travelers returned to their homeland in the 13th century knowing about the explosive mixture. But early explosives experts had meanwhile also achieved initial successes in the western world.

The English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon (1214-1294) wrote: "Let the total weight be thirty, but of saltpeter take seven parts, five from young hazelwood and five from sulfur, and you will cause thunder and destruction if you do the art know. "

The art of making explosives was soon known to all peoples on the European continent and so the armies of the 14th century were already facing each other with heavy metal cannons. Initially, incendiary arrows were used for shooting, and later stone balls. The gunpowder provided the drive for the dangerous ammunition.

For centuries, the mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur remained the only known explosive. Then, with nitroglycerine and dynamite, a new age began in the history of explosives.

Milestone dynamite

With the invention of dynamite, Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) made a breakthrough in explosives research. As the master of an explosives empire, he soon earned a golden nose.

Nobel was by no means the only one who had dreamed of a safe and highly explosive explosive. The Turin chemist Ascanio Sobrero (1812-1888) came across nitroglycerin, a substance with enormous explosive power, as early as 1846.

The mixture of glycerine, sulfuric and nitric acid was explosive like no other agent before. However, Sobrero did not succeed in taming his invention. Even with the slightest shock, the colorless liquid went up in flames.

The creator of nitroglycerin experienced the dark side of his discovery first hand. Serious injuries to the face marked the explosives researcher until his death.

Nobel escaped such a fate. He succeeded in building an explosive that was safe to handle and therefore valuable for industry from the unpredictable liquid. To do this, in 1866 he mixed nitroglycerin with kieselguhr, a sand made from the skeletons of microorganisms in the sea. The resulting mass could be portioned and transported without any problems.

Wrapped in paraffin paper and equipped with a fuse, previously unknown forces could be elicited from the new explosive. Even then, the explosive power of Nobel's invention is said to have been five times stronger than gunpowder. A sensation! Nobel named his explosives dynamite, because the Greek word "dynamis" means force.

Civil utility

The use of explosives has many facets: The explosive material is used in tunnel and canal construction as well as in the demolition of buildings. Nobel's invention made projects possible that ambitious builders could only dream of before.

The building history of the Corinth Canal, which separates the Greek mainland from the Peloponnese peninsula, makes this particularly clear: While the Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) bit his teeth despite the work of thousands of slaves on the building project, was the completion of the canal at the end of the 19th century was made easy thanks to dynamite. For only two years, from 1891 to 1893, the emergency services worked on the completion of the new, six-kilometer-long waterway.

Explosives not only help to realize new construction projects, but also destroy old buildings in a matter of seconds. Today, explosives are used as a matter of course in demolition work.

Where there was a house or an industrial plant before, a little later there is only rubble and ashes - the demolition manager makes it possible. His work is nerve-wracking and every demolition must be carefully planned.

If buildings are blown up in densely built-up areas, he takes great care that houses or towers do not burst uncontrollably in all directions. They should collapse in a small space. Often the explosives master has to have several thousand warheads laid.

In order to achieve optimal explosive performance, the warheads are not simply placed loosely in the structure. Instead, the workers drill a cavity in the walls to be blasted for each individual blast body.

After these preparations, the person authorized to blast can press the red button on his blasting machine. The explosion of the explosives then razes the building to the ground.

Military explosives

The arsenal of horror knows hardly any limits today. When bombs fall and shots are fired, military explosives are involved. One of the best-known explosives used in warfare is trinitrotoluene (TNT). In 1863, the German chemist Joseph Wilbrand produced the highly explosive substance for the first time.

As a filler for grenades, the substance became increasingly important in the German armaments industry at the beginning of the 20th century. With an explosion speed of nine kilometers per second, he was looking for a match for a long time. In the meantime, however, this record performance has also been overshadowed by even more effective substances.

Since the discovery of the first explosives, the range of action of weapons has increased - the explosive force claims more and more deaths. 8,200 kilograms of explosives, for example, lie dormant in the US Air Force's "Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb" (MOAB).

The US military impressively demonstrated its destructive power in a test drop in March 2003. A 300 meter high mushroom cloud shot up after the huge explosion. The gigantic pressure wave devastated a stretch of land within a radius of 1500 meters.

In 2007 the Russians detonated one of the most powerful conventional bombs in the world, the "Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power" (ATBIP). It is a vacuum bomb that triggers a particularly long-lasting heat and pressure wave. The strength of the explosion is comparable to that of an atomic bomb, but without using radioactive materials. The explosive power corresponds to that of 44 tons of TNT.

Explosives don't just explode in open combat. The deadly substance often lurks in the ground for years, patiently waiting for its next victim. Human rights organizations have been raising awareness of the dangers of landmines for decades. Land mines are small explosive devices that are unintentionally triggered by the victim themselves. If your detonator is loaded with a certain weight, the container filled with explosives explodes.

Explosives in a terrorist mission

Not only governments and rebels use explosives to achieve their warlike goals. Terrorist groups also use the explosive substances. Liquid explosives, in particular, have been the talk of the town over and over again.

Experts refer to liquid explosives as explosive mixtures that can be composed of very simple components. Detergents and artificial fertilizers can serve as bomb ingredients, as can chemicals from the pharmacy.

In August 2006, for example, the British secret service was able to thwart terrorist liquid explosives attacks on passenger planes. For this reason, it has been forbidden in the EU since November 2006 to carry more than 100 milliliters of liquid of a substance in hand luggage.

The terrorist threat posed by explosives is still very topical. However, it is not new. Because even in Alfred Nobel's time, explosives bombers spread fear and terror: In 1881, the Russian Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881) died from an explosive device.