Article ID: CBB524549929

Fair Chance and not a Blunt Refusal: New Understandings on Nobel, France, and Ballistite in 1889 (October 2017)


Newly found documents demonstrate that Alfred Nobel’s 1887 patented smokeless Ballistite gunpowder was tested by the French Army in 1889, yielding unimpressive results. This and other technical reasons were the basis for final 1889 French rejection rather than political motives, as claimed by Nobel, repeated by an influential 1962 biography, and echoed on a current Nobel website. Nobel offered Ballistite to the French military in late 1887, but was refused by 1888 since the French smokeless poudre B of 1884 was already employed and Ballistite was considered erosive and unsafe to produce. However, letters from French officials (and the intervention of the French Minister of War) confirm that Ballistite was indeed tested by the French military in 1889. Ballistic results in the 8 mm Lebel rifle were unfavorable and this seems the final technical reason for the rejection, rather than French interests in promoting their supposedly inferior propellant. This case study highlights the question of balance between technical and social history of military technology. The latter, examining social factors often ignored in various past military technological histories, have shown to shape inventions. In this case, though, the author of the influential Nobel biography has missed the complex technical history of the issue, relying on the personal and political for explaining the decisions.

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Authors & Contributors
Bergman, Yoel
Bown, Stephen R.
Buchanan, Brenda J.
Christen, Arden G.
Christen, Joan A.
Clodfelter, Mark
Icon: Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology
Technikgeschichte: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Technik und Industrie
Journal of the History of Dentistry
Past and Present
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
Penguin Australia
University of Nebraska Press
Military technology
Science and war; science and the military
Technology and war; technology and the military
Nobel, Alfred Bernhard
Leonardo da Vinci
Maury, Matthew Fontaine
Vieille, Paul
Mallory, Stephen Russell
Alpoim, José Fernandes Pinto
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
16th century
17th century
20th century
United States
Great Britain
Ottoman Empire
United States Marine Corps

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