Christian Friedrich Schönbein: Explosive gun cotton

Christian Friedrich Schönbein, a professor of chemistry and physics at Basel University, was the first to prove the presence of ozone in the atmosphere. As an inventor of explosives, he ignited the cultural imagination of his time.

In 1846, Christian Friedrich Schönbein (1799–1868) was doing research on oxygen when he accidentally discovered that cotton became explosive when mixed with nitric acid. He named his discovery guncotton (also known today as nitrocellulose). The new explosive had many advantages: it was light, easily inflammable (but only at a high temperature), and produced no smoke or soot.

The media are fired up

The discovery was popular and much talked about in the media. Jules Verne mentioned it several times in his novels, and it even inspired a musical composition, Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Explosions-Polka”. However, guncotton proved difficult to market. It took several years of refinement until the process became safe enough for industrial production. Schönbein’s hopes of achieving financial success with his discovery went unfulfilled. Still, guncotton and collodion, its solution in ether, went on to become the basis for many other inventions, such as celluloid film. Nitrocellulose is still in use today, with about 27,000 tonnes produced each year.

Less explosive but just as important was Schönbein’s discovery of ozone, which he detected in his laboratory due to its distinctive smell. Teaching both chemistry and physics gave him the benefit of interdisciplinary insights. He publicly voiced regret that “physicists as a rule know too little about chemistry and chemists too little about physics.”

A dedicated Basel citizen

Originally from southern Germany, Schönbein took a keen interest in the affairs of his adoptive hometown. In 1830, he joined a group of academic volunteers campaigning to prevent the separation of the canton of Basel into “city” and “country”. Schönbein became a citizen of Basel in 1840 and served in the city’s Grand Council, where he represented the university’s interests and advocated the separation of church and state.


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