At the beginning of the 19th century on the west coast of South America rich deposits of “Chile saltpeter” (sodium nitrate) were discovered in a desert-like area. The Europeans' interest was awakened immediately, because with Chile saltpeter tremendous amounts of mineral fertilizer, explosives and munitions could be produced. The stuff was exported in huge quantities. For this purpose large sailing ships were used. The long and dangerous route that led around Cape Horn took them between 80 to 100 days. Often accidents occurred on the way, for just a few sparks from a sailor’s pipe could cause huge fires that were hardly extinguished.

The deposits in South America were of such a great importance that the countries of Chile, Peru and Bolivia fought a bitter war over the mining regions from 1879 to 1884. The war ended with the defeat of Peru and Bolivia. Bolivia has no access to the ocean since then. The country, however, will not accept this and maintains a fleet that is stationed on Lake Titicaca until today.


The layers containing saltpeter (caliche) were blasted open, then pulverized and transported. The processed saltpeter was exported from various harbors along the Chilean coast, above all to Europe.


In parts of East India saltpeter accumulates in the soil. The climate is warm and moist; microorganisms like it. The area around Bihar was an especially important region of production. Abandoned settlements and also old cemeteries contained soil that was especially rich in saltpeter. Saltpeter was extracted from the soil by a very poor caste, the Nuniah. England permanently needed the coveted substance for its wars as well as for trading with it. The country covered its need for saltpeter from the region around Bihar.


Eperor Akbar (1542-1605), probably the most famous ruler in pre-colonial days, drank purified water that was cooled with a saltpeter solution. Today saltpeter is still used in medicine for cooling purposes.


Most European nations imported the saltpeter that they needed for their many wars from India. With the Peace Treaty of Paris in 1753 between England and France, France not only lost her North American, but also her Indian colonial possessions. Now saltpeter had to be produced in France. Famous chemists like Antoine Lavoisier searched for new ways of creating the substance. At least they found many methods to purify it in a better way and to produce it more efficiently. As Austria, Prussia, and England blocked the saltpeter deliveries for revolutionary France, tons of soil were cooked everywhere in France and saltpeter was prepared from of the extract. Only in this way the munitions supply for the revolutionary army could be guaranteed.


Antoine Lavoisier (1743 – 1794) is considered the father of modern chemistry. He showed that oxygen is necessary for combustion, proved that water is a compound, discovered that diamonds consist of carbon and developed the first systematic naming convention for chemical substances that was accepted worldwide with its basic principles still in use today. Lavoisier belonged to the French upper class. In pre-revolutionary France he was a rich tax collector and during a few years he was responsible for the saltpeter and gunpowder activities. Lavoisier offered his services to the revolutionaries of France and wanted to improve the production of saltpeter and gunpowder. His earlier activity for the establishment caught up with him, though, and in 1794 he was condemned to death. On the afternoon of Lavoisier’s execution the mathematician Louis Lagrange said: “It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.”