The Technological Need: Abel & Dewar’s Primary Motive for Inventing Cordite in 1889


  • Yoel Bergman Tel Aviv University, Israel



By the 1880s, smokeless military propellants greatly outperformed traditional black gun powders, as first shown in France in late 1884. In early 1889, the British version of a smokeless propellant for the military, Cordite, was developed by Sir Frederick Abel, a renowned War Office chemist and by Professor James Dewar from the University of Cambridge. They tested Alfred Nobel’s 1888 British patented smokeless Ballistite but rejected it for a major flaw, while upgrading it to obtain Cordite in 1889. At first glance, the motive for rejecting Ballistite might be seen as driven by personal profit, but considerations of monetary gain, were actually of secondary importance. Abel and Dewar’s primary motive for rejection was technical and was ultimately proven valid: Nobel made major corrections to his Ballistite patents including his correction of the flaw Dewar and Abel had noted.






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