Napoleon And Gunpowder Technology Help Mining Boom In United States
Mining History by Harold Hough
So, what does Napoleon have to do with the American mining industry?
It all began in 1800 when Eleuthere Irenee du Pont, a new immigrant, was invited to go hunting with friends in Delaware. The good news was that the trip was going well and the group was bagging a lot of game. The bad news was that they had run out of gunpowder. As a result, they had to stop at a small country store to restock. What they found shocked DuPont. American made gunpowder was expensive and poorly made. That’s why, he was told, most sportsmen used powder imported from England.
DuPont knew something about gunpowder. Before being forced to leave France because of the French Revolution, he had been the bookkeeper for the famed French Chemist Lavoiser, who was the Commissioner of Powders at the French Royal Arsenal. Before Lavoiser had taken over, French powder was notoriously unreliable. By the time his boss was executed by the revolutionaries, France had become the leader in gunpowder technology. In the process, the young bookkeeper had learned the secrets of making the best gunpowder in Europe.
DuPont asked to visit an American powder plant and was shocked at the state of technology. The British had kept advanced gunpowder technologies away from the colonies in order to keep a military advantage for themselves. The saltpeter was poorly refined and the corning process, which was responsible for overall quality and consistency wasn’t up to the standards he had seen in France.
DuPont wasn’t the only one worried about the state of America’s gunpowder industry. President Thomas Jefferson didn’t like the reliance on British powder and encouraged DuPont to do something about it. With the financial backing of his father and others he founded E.I, du Pont de Nemours and went back to France to buy state-of-the-art gunpowder making equipment.
The France he returned to was far different than the one he left. The French Revolution had burnt out and Napoleon was now First Consul. But, the British and French were still engaged in their ongoing war that wouldn’t end until Waterloo 13 years later. As a result, a simple request to buy gunpowder manufacturing equipment for hunting purposes suddenly became an issue of French national security.
Although most of the fighting between France and Britain occurred in Europe, there were skirmishes in the New World, especially in the West Indies. And, even though the United States wasn’t involved in what were called the Napoleonic Wars, it was in Napoleon’s interest to have a militarily strong US in the New World. That meant he didn’t want the United States (who had signed a treaty of friendship with France during the American Revolution) reliant on Britain for its gunpowder. And, a United States that made their own gunpowder was more of a threat to British interests in the New World. That, in turn meant more British soldiers stationed in the New World and fewer in Europe. As a result, France eagerly welcomed DuPont and sold him the equipment at cost.
MAKING CHEAPER AND BETTER BLASTING AGENTS
The cheaper, higher quality DuPont powder immediately made more ore deposits profitable for American miners. Soon after DuPont opened up its new gunpowder manufacturing factory in Delaware, hard rock gold mining began in Virginia. North Carolina miners, who had only been able to work placer deposits before, now had a way to mine the gold in quartz deposits.
But, DuPont didn’t stop there. In 1856, as mining discoveries in the West made the demand for powder greater, DuPont discovered that Peruvian sodium nitrate could be used for blasting powder instead of the more expensive potassium nitrate that was imported from India. Although the powder didn’t burn as fast as the regular gunpowder used in firearms, the extra oxygen in the sodium nitrate made the powder more powerful and cleaner. This slower burning powder produced more gasses, which helped heave the rubble out of the hole and made mucking easier.
But, miners were looking for something more powerful than gunpowder, and the answer came in 1849 in Italy, where Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerin. Although unstable, some miners began to use it because it packed more power in the blast holes, which made it easier to produce more rock. But, it wasn’t until Alfred Nobel discovered that diatomaceous earth made the nitro safe to handle that it became the blasting agent of choice in the West.
Originally, DuPont didn’t want anything to do with dynamite, but the mining boom had miners clamoring for the new blasting agent. Some blasting companies were buying licenses from Nobel, while others were just producing black market versions.
Although DuPont wasn’t originally interested in dynamite, they managed to get the inside track on the market. In 1876, DuPont purchased the California Powder Company, which was a major explosives supplier to Western mines. One of their chemists had improved on Nobel’s discovery by using sugar, magnesium carbonate, and potassium nitrate instead of earth. The result was a blasting agent called Hercules, which was more powerful than dynamite, but just a cheap. Since the sugar, magnesium carbonate, and potassium nitrate were active agents, the courts ruled that this blasting agent wasn’t an infringement on the dynamite patent, which meant DuPont avoided the costly royalties to Nobel. The result was a cheaper, more effective blasting agent for American miners that kept Western mining competitive with the rest of the world.
Although there were many innovations that made mining a success in the West, there is no doubt that explosives development contributed a great deal. DuPont contributions in the 19th century included the first reliable American gunpowder, a cheaper blasting powder, and more powerful dynamite. Together, they helped lower the cost of mining ore, made more mineral deposits economical, and consequently made the American West one of the greatest mining regions in the world. It’s something Napoleon never imagined when he gave the go ahead to sell gunpowder manufacturing machinery to the United States.