A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the Modern World

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Macmillan, Oct 1, 2005 - Science - 272 pages
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Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel's discovery of dynamite made possible the famous industrial megaprojects that transformed the countryside and defined the era, including the St. Gothard rail tunnel through the Alps, the clearing of New York harbor, the Panama Canal, and countless others. Dynamite also caused terrible injuries and great loss of life, and, in some cases, incalculable and irreparable environmental damage. Nobel was one of the richest men in a society rapidly transforming under the power of his invention, but with a troubled conscience, he left his estate to the establishment of the world-famous prizes that bear his name.  As the use of explosives soared and growing populations consumed more food, nations scrambled for the scarce yet vital organic ingredient needed for both. The quest for nitrates takes us from the rural stables and privies of preindustrial Europe to the monopoly trading plantations in India and to the Atacama Desert in South America. Nitrates were as valuable in the nineteenth century as oil is in the twenty-first and were the cause of similar international jockeying and power politics. The "nitrogen problem" of creating inorganic nitrates was solved by an enigmatic German scientist named Fritz Haber. His breakthrough not only prolonged the First World War but became the foundation of the green revolution and the tripling of world population since then. Haber is also known as the "father of gas warfare" for his work on poison gas. When he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in chemistry, it sparked international outrage and condemnation.  A Most Damnable Invention is a human tale of scientific obsession, shadowy immorality, and historical irony, and a testament to the capacity for human ingenuity during times of war.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - Schmerguls - LibraryThing

This 2005 book by a Canadian author is a non-academic history of explosives, gunpowder. dynamite, Nobel, guano, World WAr One, Fritz Haber, and fertilizer. There are no footnotes, and it really is ... Read full review

A most damnable invention: dynamite, nitrates, and the making of the modern world

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

With the expertise of a skilled storyteller, Bown (Scurvy) once again provides an exciting work of popular history, this time all about nitrate, nitroglycerin, and dynamite. His time line goes from ... Read full review


PROLOGUE An Epic Quest
1 Playing with Fire A Thousand Years of Explosives
2 Black Powders Soul The Quest for the Elusive Saltpeter
3 Blasting Oil and the Blasting Cap Alfred Nobel and the Terrible Power of Nitroglycerin
4 Construction and Destruction Dynamite and the Engineering Revolution
5 The Great Equalizer Explosives and Social Change
6 Inventions Patents and Lawsuits The Golden Age of Explosives
7 The Guano Trade The Toil for Chilean Saltpeter and the War of the Pacific
8 The Profits of Dynamite A Gift to Science and Civilization
9 Battle of the Falklands The Struggle for the Global Nitrate Supply
10 The Father of the War Fritz Habers WorldChanging Discovery
EPILOGUE War and the Green Revolution
A Note on Sources and Further Reading

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About the author (2005)

Stephen R. Bown was born in Ottawa, Canada, and graduated in history from the University of Alberta. He has a special interest in the history of science and exploration. His previous books are The Naturalists: Scientific Travelers in the Golden Age of National History and Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. He lives in the Canadian Rockies with his wife and two young children.

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