Development of Smokeless Powder
For about a thousand years, black powder (Poudre N, Poudre Noire) was the only practical propellant. However, there were many tactical disadvantages in the use of black powder. First, a squad of soldiers firing volleys would be completely unable to see their targets after just a few shots. Second, their location would quickly be obvious because of the cloud of smoke generated by the propellant. Also, black powder severely fouled barrels. This required constant cleaning, sometimes even in the heat of battle. Such fouling also limited the introduction of rifled firearms with tighter-fitting bullets.
For rifles, this problem was partially overcome with the introduction of the Minie ball and the resulting rifled musket. Black powder fouling also meant that early revolvers were often built for a loose fit to prevent jamming. Autoloading firearms quickly become inoperable due to fouling. Worse still, black powder is corrosive.
In 1884, a French chemist by the name of Paul Vieille invented the first practical smokeless powder, called Poudre B (Poudre Blanche = white powder). It was a significant improvement over black powder. Poudre B was made from two forms of nitrocellulose (collodion and guncotton), softened with ethanol and ether, and kneaded together. It was three times more powerful than black powder and it did not generate much smoke. Smokeless powders are "smokeless" because their combustion products are mainly gaseous, compared to around 60% solid products for black powder, i.e. (potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, etc.).
Poudre B was immediately adopted by the French military, however it tended to become unstable over time as a result of the volatile solvents evaporating. This led to several major accidents. For example, two battleships, the Iéna and the Liberté blew up in Toulon harbour in 1907 and 1911, respectively.
Development of Ballistite
Alfred Nobel patented Ballistite in 1887 while he was living in Paris. His formulation was composed of 10% camphor and equal parts nitroglycerine and collodion. The camphor reacted with any acidic products of the chemical breakdown of the two explosives. This both stabilized the explosive against further decomposition and prevented spontaneous explosions. However, camphor tends to evaporate over time, leaving a potentially unstable mixture.
Nobel's patent specified that the nitrocellulose should be "of the well-known soluble kind".
Nobel offered to sell the rights of his new explosive to the French government. They declined, mainly because they had recently adopted Poudre B for military use. He subsequently licensed Ballistite to the Italian government. They entered into a contract with Nobel on 1 August 1889 to obtain 300,000 kilograms of Ballistite. As a result, Nobel opened a factory at Avigliana, Turin.
The Italian Army swiftly replaced their Vetterli M1870 and Vetterli M1870/87 rifles, which used black powder cartridges, to a new model, the Vetterli M1890, which used a cartridge loaded with ballistite.
As Italy was a competing great power to France, this was not received well by the French press and the public. The newspapers accused Nobel of industrial espionage, by spying on Paul Vieille (the inventor of Poudre B), and "high treason against France". After a police investigation, Nobel was refused permission to conduct any more research, or to manufacture explosives in France. As a result, he moved to San Remo, Italy in 1891 where he spent the last five years of his life.
Development of Cordite
A government committee in Great Britain, called the "Explosives Committee" and chaired by Sir Frederick Abel, monitored foreign developments in explosives. Abel and Sir James Dewar, who was also on the committee, jointly patented a modified form of ballistite in 1889. This consisted of 58% nitroglycerin by weight, 37% guncotton and 5% petroleum jelly. It used acetone as a solvent, and was extruded as spaghetti-like rods initially called "cord powder" or "the committee's modification of ballistite", but this was soon abbreviated to cordite.
Nobel's Patent Infringement Claim
In 1893, Nobel sued Abel and Dewar over patent infringement following unsuccessful negotiations, but ended up losing the case. It then went to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords in 1895 where he also lost the two appeals and the Nobel's Explosives Company had to pay the costs. The claim was lost because the words "of the well-known soluble kind" in his patent were taken to mean soluble collodion, and to specifically exclude the ether-alcohol-insoluble guncotton.
Ballistite is still manufactured as a solid fuel rocket propellant, although the less volatile but chemically similar diphenylamine is used instead of camphor.