What Is Dynamite and How Does It Work?

By: Yara Simón  | 
A crude bundle of three sticks of dynamite bound with twin
Though a crude replica, this bundle of dynamite is what we often imagine when we think of the explosive. clu / Getty Images

Dynamite, a high explosive combining nitroglycerin with an absorbent medium such as wood pulp or diatomaceous earth, revolutionized construction and mining. Dynamite is one example of a chemical explosive, or anything that, once ignited, burns extremely rapidly and produces a large amount of hot gas in the process. The hot gas expands very rapidly and applies pressure.

Other explosives that you commonly hear about are nitroglycerin and TNT, but anything from gasoline to ammonium nitrate mixed with other substances to special plastic explosives are in the same class.


Who Invented Dynamite?

In the late 19th century, Swedish chemist, engineer and inventor Alfred Nobel created dynamite. His quest for a safer and more manageable explosive began after a tragic incident in 1864. An explosion at his family's factory, which produced nitroglycerin, claimed the lives of several workers, including his youngest brother, Emil. Determined to prevent further accidents, Nobel devoted himself to finding a solution.

After extensive research, Nobel discovered a method to stabilize nitroglycerin by combining it with an inert substance — in his case, diatomaceous earth (specifically kieselguhr), a porous material. Combined, they made a paste that he could form into rods that could fit into drilling holes. This creation was not only safer to handle and transport but also more efficient as it allowed controlled and predictable detonation.


In 1867, he successfully patented the powerful explosive. The word "dynamite" derives from the Greek “dýnamis” — meaning power and strength. Since he filed his patent in the United Kingdom, he introduced his invention in the English language.

How Dynamite Works

Most true explosives contain the oxygen they need for burning in the chemical. This allows burning to occur much more quickly. Nitroglycerin, for example, has the chemical formula C3H5(ONO2)3. The carbon and hydrogen combine with oxygen, and the nitrogen is liberated.

Dynamite is an explosive consisting of an absorbent substance (for example, sawdust) soaked in nitroglycerin. The absorbent material helps nitroglycerin become much more stable. You normally use a blasting cap to detonate dynamite — this creates a small explosion, which then triggers a larger explosion within the dynamite.


Dynamite’s Impact

The introduction of dynamite transformed construction, mining and infrastructure projects around the world. Workers could excavate tunnels more efficiently and break through materials like rock and concrete, opening new possibilities for transportation networks. They could also build complex foundations with greater ease, propelling architectural advancements.

While Nobel's invention had several benefits, it also sparked controversy. With its ability to blast through fortifications, breach defenses and create strategic openings, dynamite found its way into the military domain, altering the nature of warfare.


The destructive power led to ethical debates. When one of Nobel's brothers died, a journalist mistakenly wrote an obituary for Alfred Nobel and called him a “merchant of death.” This inspired the pacifist to establish the Nobel Prizes in his will, leaving a substantial portion of his fortune to annually award achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.

Fishing With Dynamite

Dead fish on the surface after dynamite fishing.
Fishing with dynamite is harmful to aquatic ecosystems. Brandi Mueller / Getty Images

Blast fishing, or fishing with dynamite, is another controversial use of the explosive. While used in different parts of the world, including in remote villages, dynamite fishing can have detrimental effects on aquatic ecosystems and marine life. The explosion caused by dynamite damages coral reefs, destroys habitats and kills sea organisms, including fish, invertebrates and other marine species.


Safety Considerations of Dynamite

Handling and storing dynamite means paying meticulous attention to safety measures to avert potential accidents and hazards and to keep from a potentially dangerous person. Regulatory measures and industry standards play a crucial role in ensuring the responsible use of the explosive.

Dynamite requires a dedicated, well-constructed, isolated storage facility with ventilation and climate control. The facilities, containers and ventilation systems should receive regular inspections to address any signs of damage, deterioration or malfunction. Prominent warning signs at the entrance of facilities are important to indicate the presence of explosive materials. These signs should conform to relevant safety regulations and serve as constant reminders of potential dangers.


This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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