Nitrocellulose: legend and reality

Nitrocellulose: legend and reality

Leafing through pages of literature on military subjects, I have often come across stories about the accidental opening of nitrocellulose. Their essence (in several variations) boils down to the fact that someone in his own kitchen accidentally spills something caustic on his wife’s apron, and then, trying to dry it near the stove, he sees a flash and a kind of explosive disappearance of this simple object. Curious…

I recalled this история to me because the other day I read it again here, on VO, in a very interesting and informative article by Alexander Bereshchenko “Nitrates in the war. Part I. From Sun-Symiao and Bertold Schwartz to D.I. Mendeleev. I quote:

“In 1845 ... the Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein (famous at that time for the discovery of ozone) conducted experiments in his laboratory. His wife strictly forbade him to bring his flasks to the kitchen, so he was in a hurry to finish the experiment in her absence - and spilled some caustic mixture on the table. Trying to avoid scandal, he, in the best traditions of Swiss accuracy, wiped it with his working apron, the benefit of the mixture was not too much. Then, also in the tradition of Swiss thrift, he washed the apron with water and hung it to dry over the stove. How long, how long he hung there, the story is silent, but the fact that after drying the apron suddenly disappeared is known for certain. And he disappeared not quietly, in English, but loudly, one might say, even enchantingly: in a flash and a loud pop of an explosion. But here is what attracted the attention of Schonbein: the explosion occurred without the slightest wisp of smoke! ”

This is material that you could already work with!

It turned out that we are talking about the German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein (1799-1868).

However, by 1845, he had long been a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Basel, a respected citizen of Basel, so what kind of experiments in the kitchen, and even secretly from his wife, are we talking about?

I had to dig deeper - and it turned out that really it all started with ozone ...

Big white lightning struck the bell tower

Horror gripped the little Christian. The earth trembled beneath his feet, a heavy roar fell from the sky and stunned him. "Now will kill!" he decided. But the thunder, fading away, was moving away, it became quiet, and everything was firmly in place, and he himself was safe and sound. Curiosity already burned him. Lightning struck ten paces from him - and he saw everything! Hurry, hurry there ...

People ran across the square from all sides. Christian rushed to the church. At the entrance, he saw someone and the first to hurl through the open door. Fog hung in the church. From high arches to patterned stone slabs of the floor, a strange bluish smoke filled it. And it smelled of something sharp and pungent.

The Christian heard breath behind him, the clatter of feet. People came into the church. But no one dared to utter a word. This smell! .. Oh my god! In the church! Christian looked around. People were pale and frightened, women had tears in their eyes.

“Sera ...” said finally someone's embarrassed voice.

- God, have mercy on us, it smells of sulfur here! ..

The pious inhabitants of Metzingen whispered excitedly. Sulfur spirit is the spirit of the underworld; devils spew it out; who does not know this! Is the Devil himself, the lord of hell, penetrated from the clouds into the temple of God ?! The most cowardly are already backing toward the exit, into the free air. But the Christian was in no hurry to leave. In his father's dye, he had long studied all the sharp aromas of the world. And now, with his nose up, he sniffed blue smoke - it was not sulfur at all.

The Christians returned home with a severe headache. And for the rest of my life I remembered how lightning smells ...

Twenty-eight years later, on a February day in 1839, Professor Christian Friedrich Schönbein walked along the echoing corridor of the University of Basel, heading to his laboratory. No one would now recognize in him that curious boy who was once the first to rush to the Metzingen church, filled with the stench of hell. Christian long ago left his native Württemberg, traveled all over Germany, lived in England, then settled in Switzerland. He began his working life as a student at a chemical plant, worked as a laboratory assistant, chemist, and teacher. He studied and worked at the University of Tübingen, the University of Erlangen - Nuremberg. Now he has already become a professor of physics and chemistry, a respected citizen of Basel.

Professor Schönbein pushed the door to the laboratory and stopped at the doorstep. In amazement, he pulled his nose through the air ...

That smell!

There was nobody in the tiny little room. Instruments, flasks, reagent cans, alcohol lamps - everything stood in its place. None of the assistants and students of Schönbein, apparently, came here in his absence. But this strange smell ...

Schonbein slowly took a few steps around the room. Where does the smell come from?

He peered into the fume hood, and bent to the desk. Standing on tiptoe, he sniffed the shelves with reagents, went to the window. Then he examined the desktops one after another. That's where it all came from!

On one of the tables was a volt pole - an electrical element for generating current. In the morning, Schönbein passed a current through a vessel of water, and it decomposed into its constituent parts - oxygen and hydrogen. Then, at work, he did not notice anything special. And now, from the fresh air, he immediately felt a new smell. The professor closed the electric circuit and, in turn, checked the volt pole, a can of water, the vessels into which both gases entered. The smell emitted only a vessel with oxygen.

But ordinary oxygen smells nothing!

He opened the door wide and opened the window. The cold wind hummed in the laboratory. In one minute, the winter air swept out all the flavors of chemistry from a small room. Schönbein stood by the window, then again took the vessel with oxygen. There could be no doubt: there was still a faint but distinct smell - the smell that appears only during a lightning discharge.

Since that distant day, when lightning struck the bell tower in Metzingen before his eyes, Schönbein has repeatedly observed this smell in laboratories and physical rooms. It smelled like air when electric discharges passed through it. As soon as the circles of the electric machine began to rotate and sparks slipped between the balls, this smell also appeared. He was weak, barely perceptible, but Schönbein, if he had to stand nearby, always noticed - and remembered him.

Now this smell came from plain water. The glass jar filled with invisible oxygen had its own smell. Obviously some substance emitted it. Which one?

The smell arising from the action of an electric machine was first discovered by chemist Martin Van Marum in 1785.

Martin Van Marum (1750-1837)

However, fifty-five years passed before Christian Schönbein proved that the odor carrier is a new, unknown gas, much more active than life-giving oxygen itself.

Schönbein called it ozone, which in Greek means “odorous”. This gas appeared in air and from water under the influence of an electric discharge. Ozone makes silver and even well-heated gold and platinum rust. Ozone instantly discolors paints, “whitens” them, like the best bleaching lime. Ether and alcohol, light gas light up in it by themselves. Schönbein sought to unravel the chemical nature of the new gas.

Over the years, Schönbein has done thousands of experiments and built the most sophisticated theories to explain the extraordinary properties of ozone. Ozone has become his life's work.

Schönbein was a very talented and persistent researcher. But he possessed an unusually fervent imagination - sometimes it helped him, and sometimes it harmed. Soon, ozone began to appear everywhere in all substances. And he assured himself that his discovery would turn all chemistry upside down. (The secret of ozone twenty years after the discovery of Schönbein was solved by other scientists.)

Carried away by his theories, Schönbein now did not see the forest because of the trees. Is ozone just a kind of oxygen? He never wanted to believe it. He strongly denied the findings of other researchers. And in order to prove his case, he undertook more and more new experiments.

The idea occurred to him that everything hot, everything caustic, all active substances known to chemists - everything comes from ozone. Strong nitric acid, which burns like fire, probably contains ozone. And there is probably ozone in sulfuric acid. Should I try to mix them? That must be an oxidizing agent of terrible power! Conceived - done. Schönbein prepared a mixture of the two strongest acids and began to test their effect.

He doused various substances with this mixture - iodine, phosphorus, sulfur, sugar, paper, cotton - and observed what transformations were happening to them. Sugar, under the influence of acid, turned into resin, paper became transparent and waterproof, like parchment. And cotton ... Cotton has turned into gunpowder!

In appearance, he seemed to have not changed at all: ordinary cotton, cotton, white cotton. But as soon as you hit a ball of cotton wool with a hammer, it scattered with a terrible explosion. And from the spark she flushed with greed, with a hiss. This explosive cotton wool burned so fast that it could be burned in the bare palm; the flame appeared and disappeared in an instant, not even having time to burn a hand. Moreover, it burned without smoke!

Schonbein was amazed. He wanted to discover the true properties of ozone, and discovered a new, smokeless explosive!

Such happy mistakes often happen in science: defending an incorrect theory, the researcher searches for one thing, but finds a completely different one ...

Throughout Europe, there was only talk about the opening of Schönbein. Finally found a replacement for the old gunpowder! For six hundred years he reigned supreme on the battlefields. Now resign him! The new gunpowder is much stronger; it will change the war. The world will see battles without the smoke of shots, without the roar of a shot (pyroxylin, as the new gunpowder was called, gave a somewhat less lingering sound when shooting - and in a fit of enthusiasm, someone rumored that it was completely silent).

And what did this new, terrible explosive come from?

It’s ridiculous to say: from cotton paper, from such a peaceful substance as cotton wool!

A cozy cotton bathrobe - and gunpowder! Nightcap - and gunpowder!


Grammar school students, students, hairdressers, pharmacists - all rushed to make pyroxylin. Everyone walked with acid yellow hands; in the pubs and cafes, people showed each other how it flared up.

Meanwhile, the powers that be took up the matter. The humble seeker of an electric smell began to receive letters on expensive paper, with princely and countial emblems. The letters were insinuating, flattering. “I really took your invention to heart!” - assured the envoy of Emperor Nicholas I in Switzerland. He was in a hurry to lure the venerable chemist to faraway Petersburg, until others intercepted him.

Schonbein was also called to Paris, to Vienna, to England. Thousands promised him, but thousands - millions ...

Usually, inventors and authors of great discoveries have to upholster the thresholds, for decades to wait for recognition and help. It all happened differently. It was about the power of the armies, the monarchs and their governments were very interested in this.

Not even a year has passed since the opening of Schonbein, and already in England the first pyroxylin plant was launched.

Schonbein has now almost forgotten to think about his ozone. He concluded contracts, received patents, negotiated with generals, with bankers. The golden rain deafened him.

And suddenly, terrible news: an English factory took off, twenty-one workers were killed, dozens of others were injured.

New factories were built. But every now and then they destroyed them with an explosion. Workshops exploded, warehouses exploded. Hundreds of people died. Nothing to do: had to ban the production of pyroxylin. Christian Schönbein again returned to ozone, in the peaceful silence of his laboratory.

But other chemists stubbornly continued his work and after many years found a safe way to produce pyroxylin. It was necessary to clean it well of impurities - that's all. Well-washed pyroxylin could be stored for years without fear of explosions.

Pyroxylin went into action. They began to fill mines, press it into checkers for subversive work. But for guns and rifles still used the old, smoky gunpowder. Pyroxylin too quickly exploded: often the gases did not have time to push a projectile or bullet through a long barrel, but immediately teared to pieces the whole body of the gun. Chemists started working again. And again tamed pyroxylin ...

All work in the field of smokeless gunpowder was strictly classified, and one country carefully guarded its secrets from another. For a long time, Russia did not have smokeless powder. Seeking help from foreign governments and chemists did little. The military artillery department decided to turn to Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev for help ...

Well, what came of it, you, dear readers, you can learn from the article “Nitrates in the war. Part I. From Sun-Symiao and Bertold Schwartz to D.I. Mendeleev. " An informative article, maybe a little overloaded with technical details, but this is a matter of taste. In any case, I recommend.

Nechaev. Chemical weapon.
Encyclopedia of Brockhaus and Efron, etc.
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  1. Krasnodar 15 March 2020 07: 33 New
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    I already wrote that I am very happy about the return of Privalov! )))
    1. Insurgent 15 March 2020 08: 02 New
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      Cotton has turned into gunpowder!
      In appearance, he seemed to have not changed at all: ordinary cotton, cotton, white cotton. But as soon as you hit a ball of cotton wool with a hammer, it scattered with a terrible explosion. And from the spark she flushed with greed, with a hiss. This explosive cotton wool burned so fast that it could be burned in the bare palm; the flame appeared and disappeared in an instant, not even having time to burn a hand.

      Indeed, somehow we wanted on the board, for the sake of fun, with the help of gunpowder to D30, to burn out the call sign and the title of one militia lol
      Not really what happened. The board was only slightly, slightly charred, indicating only the weak contours of the “written”.

      And “for the intended purpose” we used gunpowder to fill the funnels of the cumulative RPG-7 shot, to increase their high-explosive fragmentation ...
      1. Snail N9 15 March 2020 09: 01 New
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        A very interesting magazine for chemistry lovers "Chemistry and Chemists"
        The cool thing is that he is freely available on the Internet (probably because he is Ukrainian) ... and there are such recipes ..... in particular, and on the topic ....wink
  2. Sergey Averchenkov 15 March 2020 08: 46 New
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    The article was written not in the style of a scientific work, but in the style of ... I don’t know whether it is artistic. It is easy to read and it is a pity that it ended (article). Many thanks to Alexander Privalov.
  3. Butchcassidy 15 March 2020 10: 41 New
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    Wonderful article!
  4. Aviator_ 15 March 2020 11: 10 New
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    Good non-fiction article. Respect to the author! I look forward to new publications in the same style of presentation.
  5. Undecim 15 March 2020 14: 11 New
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    Nitrocellulose: legend and reality
    Very interesting article. The VO site has recently experienced an acute shortage of such publications.
    But historical justice must be respected. It was not Schönbein who discovered nitrocellulose; it was discovered by the Frenchman Braccono.
    1. A. Privalov 15 March 2020 16: 26 New
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      You're right. Apparently, you should write as in the article to which I referred:
      "And although Schonbein was not the first to discover nitrocellulose, it was he who was destined to make a conclusion about the importance of the discovery."
  6. Nikolaevich I 15 March 2020 14: 59 New
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    The author, quite the same, modestly talked about pyroxylin! repeat After all, he could easily “give out to the mountain”, at least (!), A couple more articles! Oh, how much could be written here! fellow Pyroxylin is dry, wet ... pyroxylin shells of the Russian artillery (what and why is their fault in the Russian-Japanese war ...) ... nitro-pyroxylin mixtures (tones, senghite) ... yes So, it remains to wish the Author to continue this work and please us with more articles ... hi
  7. A. Privalov 15 March 2020 16: 35 New
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    Dear readers, thank you for your feedback. Of course, the article does not pretend to be scientifically accurate, but it gives readers an idea of ​​what happened. In more detail about pyroxylin, and with some technical calculations in the article mentioned by me above. In general, this is a very interesting author. It is a pity that he wrote so little for us in VO. His profile and several interesting and informative articles here:
  8. WayKheThuo 15 March 2020 16: 37 New
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    A wonderful article.
    Thanks, Author.
  9. Arthur 85 15 March 2020 20: 58 New
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    However, to this day, discoveries in chemistry are made by accident ... Um, what does this mean? What we do not know, in fact, what is a chemical bond.
  10. napalm 16 March 2020 09: 51 New
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    Very interesting article thanks.
  11. Korax71 17 March 2020 17: 53 New
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    Alexander hi with the initiative of you, after the break drinks as always, the article is on top; I did not expect anything else from you good we are waiting for the next interesting publications, thanks for your work hi I join the words of Comrade Krasnodar drinks
    1. A. Privalov 18 March 2020 08: 29 New
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      Thank. I will try. hi
  12. acetophenon 18 March 2020 19: 32 New
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    Come on! Of course, this is a fairy tale. Even the wildest chemist of those times knew that cotton did not "hold" concentrated acid. But just the attention to the topic itself is nice.