- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005


By Stephen R. Bown

Thomas Dunne, $23.95, 272 pages, illus.


It would seem hard to imagine a thrilling must-be-read-at-one-sitting page-turner in which the main elements of the story involve compost, bird droppings and chemical reactions. Yet this is exactly what Stephen R. Bown has achieved in “A Most Damnable Invention,” a fast paced, gripping narrative in which these elements play major roles in the invention and development of explosives.

First the chemical reactions. Nineteenth-century chemists were fond of mixing substances by trial and error in the hope of discovering something useful and profitable. In 1846 an Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero mixed one part nitric acid — a known explosive — with two parts sulfuric acid and one part gelatin, a byproduct of the manufacture of soap. When the reaction was complete, he poured the solution into a demijohn of water and observed the formation of an oily pale yellow salad dressing-like liquid that slowly sank to the bottom.

Curious about the properties of this compound, Sobrero heated a small drop of it in a test tube. It exploded with sufficient force to embed glass splinters in his face and injure other chemists working some distance away. Nitroglycerin, the name chosen by Sobrero for this new compound, turned out not only to be highly explosive but poisonous as well. When he placed a small drop of it on his tongue it took him several days to recover from the resulting violent pulsating headache and general prostration.

Additional early experience with the chemical revealed nitroglycerin to be highly unstable and capricious, often exploding unexpectedly when jostled. But despite these serious drawbacks, nitroglycerine was too important to ignore: It packed five times the explosive power of gunpowder. Enter at this point Alfred Nobel, the oldest son from a Swedish family that manufactured mines, cannonballs and mortars for the Russian government.

In 1864 the family laboratory in Stockholm began making nitroglycerine for the blasting of tunnels and mines. Unfortunately, unintended explosions occurred as well, including one in Nobel’s own laboratory in September of that year that killed five people including Nobel’s younger brother Emil. Undaunted, Nobel opened additional manufacturing plants which, in turn, led to additional explosions and loss of life.

Just at the point when nitroglycerine was about to be internationally interdicted, Nobel made a chance observation that would set him on the path to becoming one of the richest men in the world. On a busy day at the Krummel factory a small amount of nitroglycerine oozed onto a local form of clay used for packaging. The liquid was immediately transformed into a putty-like mess. The clay had diluted the nitroglycerine and separated its particles, thus slowing down their decomposition — in essence allowing for control of the explosive effect.

Nobel disingenuously patented his new discovery under two names: Dynamite after the Greek dynamos for “powerful” and Nobel’s Safety Powder — a sly attempt to promote the product as safe and even harmless.

Dynamite swiftly transformed industry and warfare: skyscrapers, coal and oil exploration, canals, railroads, tunnels, land mines and artillery. “What once took weeks, or was possible only in the fanciful dreams of the overly optimistic, could now be done in moments,” writes Mr. Bown. But explosives could not be made without the chemical compound popularly known as saltpeter — crystals of potassium nitrate formed in hot dry earth from decomposing vegetable and animal matter (compost).

By the turn of 20th century the only nitrate source that could meet the escalating demand brought about by the proliferation of high explosives was located in the guano deposits (essentially vast accumulations of bird droppings) located in Chile, halfway around the world from the primary markets of western Europe and the eastern United States. “Nitrates were as valuable … as oil is in the twenty-first [century] and the cause of similar international jockeying and power politics,” writes the author.

So valuable, in fact, that when war broke out in 1914 the British quickly achieved a naval victory in order to close the sea-lanes, thus creating a deficit of saltpeter in Germany that severely limited both food (nitrates are an important component of fertilizer) and armament production. If nitrogen couldn’t be obtained from the earth because of threatened supplies, why not attempt to extract it from the air?

Approximately 80 percent of each cubic foot of the air around us consists of nitrogen with seven tons of the gaseous element suspended above every square yard of the earth. But extracting that ubiquitous element from the air resisted the efforts of the most brilliant chemical minds of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Enter in 1909 an innovative but quirky German chemist, Fritz Haber, who worked out an innovative way of combining nitrogen and hydrogen to form ammonia gas. From there it was only a simple step to add oxygen to fashion the precursor of nitric acid. The Haber process, as it’s still called, provided Germany with the much-needed nitrogen for explosives. Indeed, without the Haber process Germany would have run out of munitions, probably by the spring of 1916, Mr. Bown estimates.

But Haber’s contribution to the war wasn’t limited to obtaining nitrogen from the air. Recognizing the potential of chlorine gas, he devised a means to release the poisonous substance from cylinders. In the spring of 1915 Haber organized the first gas assault (Operation Disinfection was the code-name) along a three and a half mile front near the Belgian town of Ypres. At the end of the battle the chlorine gas was responsible for an estimated 15,000 casualties and nearly 5,000 dead.

Like Nobel, Fritz Haber was a righteous man unwilling or unable to publicly express any moral qualms about the hellish consequences unleashed by his discoveries; not even when his wife Clara, also a chemist, pleaded with him to refrain from any additional involvement in what she considered immoral and barbaric work. Dubbed the “Father of Gas Warfare” and shunned by his peers, he continued to believe until the end of his life as an exile in Switzerland that he was right and his critics were wrong.

“Haber’s was an argument similar to the arguments put forward by Alfred Nobel to justify his life’s work in improving the destructive capacity of explosives and propellant powders — that each new terrible manifestation of destructive power is a humane development that will shorten conflicts and therefore ultimately result in saving lives,” writes Mr. Bown. But while Nobel eventually recognized the unsoundness of this argument, (“I wish all guns with their belongings and everything could be sent to hell, which is the proper place for their exhibition and use.”) Haber persisted in espousing it with a seemingly superhuman energy.

When Haber won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1919 the ensuing uproar delayed the bestowal of his award until six months after the other Nobel Laureates had received theirs. Even more humiliating, the king of Sweden refused to appear, as was customary, to bestow the award. Omitted from the ceremony was any mention of Haber’s late career research on poison gases. Instead, he was lauded for his development of the process whereby nitrogen compounds could be synthesized from the air and thereby provide “an exceedingly important means of advancing agriculture and the welfare of mankind.”

Thus Haber, like Nobel, was both demon and saint, depending on which application of his research you chose to emphasize. The Nobel Committee decided that it was not their task to decide issues of moral judgment but to restrict themselves to their task of recognizing outstanding scientific achievements. And on this point the committee had nothing to fear from history: Even Haber’s harshest critics acknowledged the scientific merit of his work.

As Mr. Bown makes clear in this vivid and compelling narrative, explosives are neither intrinsically good nor bad. While they have expanded our ability to alter our planet to suit our desires, they have also contributed to social destabilization. So would the world be better off if explosives did not exist? Emphatically not, according to the author: “The history of the use of explosives through the ages is nothing other than a history of the conflicted and bewildering duality of the human mind. On the one hand, murderous, frightening, and destructive; on the other hand, optimistic, determined, and wildly inventive.” One can only hope that latter forces will ultimately prevail.

Richard Restak is a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist who has written on medical ethics, neuroscience and behavior. His books include “The Brain” and “The Mind.”

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