How smokeless powder was invented

In 1845, German chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein (1799-1868) conducted an experiment in the kitchen of his home using a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids. 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 kitchen table. Fearing a scandal, he grabbed the first rag he came across (it turned out to be a cotton kitchen apron), wiped a puddle from the table, and then hung the apron in front of the hearth. Drying, the apron exploded. Schönbein knew immediately what he had received.

The name he gave to the new substance literally translates from German as "shooting cotton", but now chemists call it nitrocellulose. Schönbein sold the recipe for the new explosive to several governments at once.

At that time, black powder was used in artillery, the soot from which soiled the guns that in between shots they had to be cleaned, and after the first volleys such a curtain of smoke rose that they had to fight almost blindly. The military was enthusiastic about the explosive, which produces significantly less smoke, and, moreover, is even more powerful than black powder. They began to build factories for the production of nitrocellulose, but they exploded very quickly. Nitrocellulose was too impatient to wait for battles, and therefore had to be abandoned in the early 1860s.

Later, however, they came up with a method for purifying nitrocellulose from impurities that caused spontaneous explosions, and nitrocellulose became safe to use.