Ascanio Sobrero, a chemistry professor at the University of Turin, first prepared nitroglycerin in 1847. He observed that the liquid was extremely dangerous to handle because of its explosive properties and that inhalation caused an intense, throbbing headache. Over the next three decades, the future of nitroglycerin took two significant, divergent paths—one medical, and the other for construction and armaments.
A number of British physicians observed that nitroglycerin rapidly terminated the intense chest pain of angina, and, following the publication of a systematic study in 1879, the drug was adopted for routine medical use. To this day, nitroglycerin (medically renamed glyceryl trinitrate to dissociate itself from the explosive) and related nitrates are used to prevent and treat angina.
Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, also at the University of Turin, found that when nitroglycerin was mixed with inert ingredients, it could be handled more safely. In 1867, he patented this mixture Dynamite, which, with its subsequent improvements and variations, was widely adopted in construction, mining, and armament industries.
Shown here is an advertisement for the Aetna Dynamite Company of New York, c. 1895.