Christian Friedrich Schönbein (1799-1868)

German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein (1799-1868) made his mark by discovering ozone, a form of oxygen, but went on to other discoveries. In an experiment at his home, in 1845, he spilled a mixture of nitric acid and sulfuric acid and used his wife's cotton apron to mop it up. He hung the apron over the stove to dry, but once dry it went poof! and was gone. He had converted the cellulose of the apron into nitrocellulose. The nitro groups (added from the nitric acid) served as an internal source of oxygen, and when heated the cellulose was completely oxidized, all at once.

Schönbein recognized the possibilities of the compound. Ordinary black gunpowder exploded into thick smoke, blackening the gunners, fouling the cannon and small arms, and obscuring the battlefield. Nitrocellulose was a possible "smokeless powder", and from its potential as a propellant for artillery shells, it received the name guncotton.

Attempts to manufacture guncotton for military use failed at first, because the factories had a tendency to blow up. It was not until 1891 that Dewar and the English chemist Frederick Augustus Abel (1827-1902) managed to compound a safe mixture that included guncotton. Because the mixture could be pressed into long cords, it was called cordite. Thanks to cordite and later "improvements", soldiers of the twentieth century have had a clear view of the battlefield while slaughtering their enemy and while being slaughtered.

One of the components of cordite is nitroglycerine, which had been discovered in 1847 by the Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero (1812-1888). It was a shattering explosive, also too unstable for war. Its use in peacetime to blast roads through mountains and to move tons of earth for a variety of purposes was very dangerous. Careless use heightened the death rate.

The family of Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896), a Swedish inventor, manufactured nitroglycerine. When an explosion killed Nobel's brother, he became determined to tame the explosive. In 1866, he found that an absorbent earth called "kieselguhr" could sponge up considerable quantities of nitroglycerine. The dampened kieselguhr could be molded into sticks which were made safe to handle, but retained the power of nitroglycerine itself. This safe explosive Nobel called dynamite. He speculated that it would make war so horrible as to enforce peace.

The invention of new and better explosives toward the end of the nineteenth century was chemistry's first important contribution to warfare since the invention of gunpowder, over five centuries earlier, but the development of poison gases in World War I made it quite plain that mankind, in future wars, was going to turn to science for means of destruction.