In 1857 Lammot du Pont developed a new method of black powder manufacture which substituted South American sodium nitrate for the more expensive, British-controlled potassium nitrate. This change not only freed American powder from dependence on Great Britain but also resulted in a more powerful blast than existing black powder. Lammot’s “B” blasting powder was the first notable change in black powder composition in more than 600 years. During the Civil War, further black powder research yielded “Mammoth Powder” for heavy artillery use by Union forces.
In the late 19th century, new explosives began to challenge the dominance of black powder. Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite introduced a blasting explosive three times more powerful.
Recognizing the significance of this invention, DuPont entered dynamite production when Lammot organized the Repauno Chemical Company in 1880. The black powder market eroded further with the development of smokeless powder in the 1890s. Derived from guncotton, smokeless powder burned more cleanly than black powder and provided greater explosive force. The two world wars accelerated research and development of new explosives like TNT and blasting gelatins. Following World War II, black powder production declined rapidly until all commercial manufacture was discontinued in the mid-1970s.
In 1802 E.I. du Pont founded his company solely as an explosives manufacturer. Trained at the French government’s gunpowder agency headed by the famous chemist Antoine Lavoisier, E.I. was certain that he could produce black powder superior to the best available American product at that time. DuPont’s Brandywine powder mills did indeed manufacture the highest quality black powder. By the beginning of the War of 1812, DuPont had become the leading black powder supplier to the U.S. government. An era of national development between 1830 and 1860 created greater demand for powder to blast open coal mines and to build roads, canals and railroads. In 1857 Lammot du Pont patented a new method of black powder manufacture which substituted sodium nitrate for potassium nitrate, resulting in a more powerful blast than traditional black powder. Two years later, DuPont purchased the Wapwallopen powder factory outside Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to manufacture this blasting powder for industrial uses. During the Civil War, DuPont supplied almost 40 percent of all powder used by the Union army and navy.
By the late 19th century, DuPont was experimenting with new explosives technology first developed in Europe. In 1867 Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel successfully stabilized nitroglycerin to create dynamite, a high explosive providing three times the power of black powder. Unable to convince company president Henry du Pont to begin dynamite operations, Lammot entered the business independently when he organized the Repauno Chemical Company in 1880. Repauno was later fully incorporated into DuPont and became the world’s largest producer of dynamite by the 1920s. Even more important for DuPont’s future was the discovery by European chemists of guncotton, a highly explosive material derived from nitrated cotton, or nitrocellulose. By the 1880s, researchers had successfully changed guncotton into a smokeless powder that was superior to black powder. DuPont first made smokeless powder in the 1890s for sport shooting and soon developed a military grade version. The company would become the world’s largest producer of the explosive during World War I.
Although World War I resulted in unprecedented explosives production, DuPont had already begun to diversify into non-explosives. When the du Pont cousins bought the company in 1902, they sought new uses for the raw materials of explosives, particularly in the production of lacquers, paints and coated textiles. This move toward diversification was furthered by a 1912 antitrust decision, which deemed DuPont a gunpowder monopoly and ordered the company to divest itself of a substantial portion of its explosives business.
Despite this increasing diversification, DuPont continued to improve the production processes of high explosives, especially TNT, in its Eastern Laboratory. The company also bought a controlling interest in firearms and munitions maker Remington Arms in 1933. During World War II, DuPont once again met military demands for high explosives. The war also launched the company’s involvement into atomic explosives. DuPont built a full-scale plutonium plant for atomic weapons in Hanford, Wash., and operated the Savannah River nuclear plant following the war. Overall, however, a shift in focus to peacetime products like textiles and industrial chemicals resulted in a dramatic reduction in new explosives production through the 1950s and 1960s. DuPont discontinued all manufacture of TNT in the early 1970s and dynamite was eclipsed by the company’s new line of water gel explosives that provided greater safety and reliability. By the early 1990s, DuPont ceased all explosives production and sold Remington Arms, ending nearly 200 years of a continuous product line.