Exactly what I thought: “Say What?!” and/or “Historical Re-enacting, What?!” Not only is gun-cotton cool sounding but it is also one of my favorite types of materials: a Polymer.
Nitrocellulose is created by nitrating cellulose (duh) and was first developed/discovered in the mid 1800’s. Which was a great era for science, and a bad era for fashion. The first two iterations of Nitrocellulose were highly unstable, developed by Henri Braconnot and Théophile-Jules Pelouze respectively. But it was Christian Friedrich Schönbein who first managed to create a practical version, through a laboratory accident. As the story goes, Friedrich spilled a bottle of nitric acid on the table, after sopping up the mess with a cotton apron, he left it to dry on the open stove door. As soon as the apron fully dried it exploded into flames. Two other chemists Rudolf Christian Böttger and F. J. Otto also developed the same technology that year, but it was Otto who first published his findings.
History shmistory you say, can it blow stuff up? yes. yes it can, and very successfully I might add, it creates forces six times that of black powder. But all that power lead to trouble, as controlling it was a significant challenge. Just ask Kanye. Check out this historical blooper “Much excitement has been produced in England by the explosion of gun-cotton at the well-known works of Prentice and Co., Stowmarket, resulting in the loss of nearly thirty lives and in a great destruction of property.” Harper’s Monthly Vol. XLIV No. 261 February 1872 (Wikisource, The Free Library) Due to such prevalent safety concerns gun cotton fell out of favor, but nitrocellulose was used as the basis for the development of smokeless powder. Not only was this volatile substance used for activities that had inherent danger, blowing things up, shooting things, it also found use as a base for film. X-ray, photograph, and motion picture film was previously all made from Nitrocellulose, starting in the 1880’s. Which, if you remember, served as the means for the vengeance of Shosanna Dreyfus in the explosive finale of Inglorious Basterds.
From the Civil War to WWII: Great moments in blowing stuff up, brought to you by Nitrocellulose.