Around the American Civil War period, TNT and nitroglycerin were discovered. This made me wonder... what if a more effective recipe for TNT was developed, and efforts were made to manufacture it?

This question has two parts to it.

  1. What are the likelihoods of discovering the recipe for usably pure TNT with this tech level? TNT was discovered at this point, but from what I was taught the purity was so low that it could not be made into an effective explosive compound.

  2. How dangerous would it be to manufacture and handle TNT, in this period? Would they commonly risk a disaster equivalent to Tianjin harbor in 2015 with their factories (yes, it's ammonium nitrate, not TNT, but the manufacture would involve nitric acid and toulene)? Or would it be possible to manufacture the chemical with relative safety?

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    $\begingroup$ Tnt was discovered in 1863. The American Civil War extended from 1861 to 1865. You are talking about history as it really happened. A 1 minute search of Wikipedia would have saved you some head scratching. Down voting because the question shows lack of effort on OP part. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Jan 1 '18 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ TNT is not a "powder". It is produced as flakes or needles and it is normally melted (it melts at 80 °C) and poured into a solid mass. It is a very stable explosive (as far an explosive can be "stable"); it is actually quite hard to detonate, needing a strong shock wave from an explosive primer -- this made a darling of armies worldwide. And the Tianjin disaster of 2015 had nothing to do with TNT and everything to do with nitrocellulose. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 1 '18 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ This has a VTC reason of off-topic, but I disagree. The second question is easily answered, "no harder than it is today." The first question is asking about the plausibility of scientific insight/inspiration acting to advance the knowledge of TNT faster than it could, a type of question we frequently encounter here. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 1 '18 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings, I've been asking myself about this statement in our FAQ: "Historical events of or historical facts about the real world, except when provided as examples or comparisons in the construction of an imaginary world." That statement can easily be interpreted as "you can ask any historical question you wish so long as you declare its purpose as supporting the development of a fictional world." The Q is pretty clear to me, that it's asking about alternative history. We need a specific and clear interpretation as to what that condition means, because this Q appears to meet it. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 2 '18 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings, (*sigh*) there's gotta be a way to clear this up. We still have people voting to close santa questions. It just isn't clear enough. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 2 '18 at 3:45

TNT was first prepared in 1863 by German chemist Julius Wilbrand and originally used as a yellow dye. Its potential as an explosive was not appreciated for several years, mainly because it was so difficult to detonate and because it was less powerful than alternatives. Its explosive properties were first discovered by another German chemist, Carl Häussermann, in 1891. (Wiki)

You don't tell us anything about why you're asking the question. If you're looking to write an alternative history story that uses improved TNT during the U.S. Civil War then you need to:

  • Look into the history of Julius Wildbrand and see if his research can discover TNT ealier (at least 5 years earlier) and,

  • Look into the history of Carl Häussermann to see if either his research could be pulled up 30+ years.

Yes, there is always the possibility of serendipity. Wildbrand wasn't actually looking for an explosive, so in frustration he could have thrown a batch of TNT into a furnace for incineration, resulting in the instantaneous discovery of its explosive properties. After that it wouldn't take long to figure out how to detonate it predictably. Assuming he lived through the moment, that would have eliminated Häussermann from the picture completely and saved you 30 years of development.

Note that by 1863 the U.S. Civil War was already turning against the Confederate States and TNT would not change history substantially (which is another way of saying it wouldn't have changed it at all). If the Civil War is the focus of your story, then you need both the invention of TNT and the discovery of its explosive properties to happen no later than 1861.

Finally, while I can't speak to what, if any, improvements were made to TNT between 1863 and 1902 when the German military started using it in their ordinance, I can say that it wouldn't have mattered. TNT wasn't used in the Civil War, as you suggest, because it's original state was too impure to be a decent explosive. It wasn't used because it's so stable no one understood that it was an explosive. Even in the state of its original discovery, it might have changed the war substantially... especially if the Confederates got hold of it first and could figure out how to detonate it using a cannon ball.

  • $\begingroup$ Admittedly, even if its state was not particularly pure, there may be a secondary process to refine it. TNT has over twice the impulse, and about four times the pressure of a gunpowder explosion, so it would greatly emphasize explosives over other kinds of ammo if it were produced. oai.dtic.mil/oai/… Thank you for your answer. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Jan 2 '18 at 2:26

TNT was discovered about the time you are talking about

The original discovery of TNT happened in 1863, right smack in the middle of the American Civil War. So, the likelihood of discovering TNT with Civil War tech is ~1 as the chemical was discovered with Civil War tech!

The problem is blowing it up, though

Here's the rub -- it's easy to figure out something like nitroglycerin is an explosive, as it'll blow up with only a relatively mild degree of provocation, easily generated in the lab. However, TNT is far less sensitive, to the point where nobody figured out it was actually capable of detonating until nearly four decades later. About the only way one would have been able to test it for detonatability using the materials at the time would be to perform a significant drop hammer test (something that people just didn't think of back then), or to perform an air gap test using a donor charge of phlegmatized nitroglycerine. While an intrepid explosives experimenter could come up with the idea of an air gap test at that time, it would be difficult to achieve the level of control of the donor charge needed for reliable data.


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