Boom Times

Follow the birth, life, and demise of the Hercules Powder Company, which once dominated the explosives industry in the United States.

By Patrick H. Shea | July 28, 2013

The U.S. Civil War created an insatiable appetite for explosives, and companies both new and established rushed to meet the seemingly endless demand. As the war drew to a close, the supply of explosives soon far exceeded demand, and the industry plunged into turmoil. DuPont, the U.S. pioneer in explosives, resolved to bring order back to the industry by absorbing and eliminating as much of its competition as possible. As a result DuPont became the largest explosives monopoly in the United States.

By the turn of the 20th century DuPont and its subsidiaries controlled nearly two-thirds of the entire explosives market. Trust-busting crusaders of the time, who had made their names dismantling industrial monopolies in the railroad, steel, and oil industries, turned their attention to DuPont. In 1907 the Department of Justice filed a criminal antitrust suit against the company. The suit went to trial the next year, and after three years of arguments the U.S. Circuit Court for the Third District ruled that DuPont was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. DuPont was told to prepare a plan for its own dissolution.The company negotiated a settlement with the government, agreeing to divide its explosives industries between itself and the newly formed Atlas Powder and Hercules Powder companies.

With assets handed down from its parent, Hercules quickly established itself as one of the primary explosives manufacturers in the nation, just in time for a new—and global—conflict.World War I led to profits and growth, but Hercules quickly realized it could not depend on wartime contracts for its survival. After the war Hercules turned itself into a chemical producer, one whose products eventually spanned specialty chemicals, petrochemicals, engineered polymers, and even aerospace technologies. But a link to its explosive past remained; in the 1950s Hercules began building rockets for the military and in the 1990s built rockets for the civilian satellite market. Hercules continued to operate until 2008, when it was acquired by Ashland.


Lawyer’s Dinner (1912)

In 1912 DuPont lawyers, after five years of representing DuPont in its antitrust case and negotiating the creation of Hercules and Atlas, assembled for a dinner. Although DuPont had been forced to split itself, Hercules, the new company, was staffed primarily by former DuPont executives, and the connection between it and its parent company remained largely intact.


Hercules (n.d.)

Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek demigod Heracles, a son of Zeus. The name was first used by the California Powder Works (CPW) to market a popular brand of explosive powder to miners during the California Gold Rush (1848–1855).At the time, CPW’s biggest rival was Giant Powder Company, so CPW chose the name Hercules because of the demigod’s famous ability to slay giants. In 1903 DuPont acquired CPW and kept the name Hercules to denote a specific brand of powder until 1912.


Teamster (circa 1915–1935)

Hercules began as an explosives company supplying gun owners, the military, and the mining, construction, quarrying, and agriculture industries. Producing and transporting explosives was a risky business; so Hercules, like other explosives companies, operated many small plants close to its customers rather than a few large plants close to its sources of raw materials, which included the sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and wood pulp used to produce nitroglycerin.The teamster in this picture is transporting Hercules explosives from its production facility in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, to the vast anthracite coal fields of the surrounding area.


Advertisement: “Farming with the Help of Dynamite” (1915)

The market for blasting explosives was divided into three main segments: mining and quarrying, construction, and agriculture. Although by far the smallest segment, agriculture was a critical component of the business; farmers purchased nearly 20 million pounds of dynamite annually to dig ditches, drain swamps, and remove boulders and stumps, and for sub-soiling, or deep tilling, fields.The advertisement boasts that “the crop yield from a sub-soiled field will more than double that from the same field before sub-soiling.”


Trade Booth for Farmers (circa 1920–1935)

Trade booths played a valuable role in marketing explosives to farmers.


Advertisement: “Turp and Tine” (1930)

Naval stores is a broad term that today refers to any product derived from pine-tree sap. Originally the term was used to describe such resin-based products as turpentine, rosin, pitch, and tar used in building and maintaining ships. Throughout its existence Hercules showed itself adept at transforming previously worthless substances, such as kelp, into valuable products, such as acetone and potash. The popular advertising duo, “Turp” and “Tine,” pictured here, helped Hercules become a brand name for turpentine.


Tree Stumps (circa 1925–1935)

As clear-cutting depleted the pine forests Hercules relied on, the company developed a method to extract naval-store chemicals from the vast fields of tree stumps and roots that farmers wanted removed. During the 1920s stumps were frequently dynamited out of the ground, hand loaded onto wagons, and hauled by mules to the nearest railway, where they were transported to the closest Hercules plant. By 1930 many of these operations substituted bulldozers for dynamite and trucks for mules.


Advertisement: “Materials Our Grandmothers Never Knew” (1930)

Hercules’s Naval Stores Department opened up new markets for the company’s products, including compounds designed for the textile industry. For example, Hercules turned its pine oil into an effective solvent that removed dirt and grease from cotton, wool, and other natural and synthetic fibers. Pine oil gradually replaced other mineral and vegetable oils in preparing fabrics for dyeing.


Specialty Naval Stores Hercolyn and Abalyn

In the 1930s the Naval Stores Department expanded into specialty chemicals, such as Hercolyn and Abalyn. Hercolyn is commonly used in cosmetics as a fragrance fixative and to provide adhesion and gloss in lipstick. Abalyn is a plasticizer used in adhesive products like tape and labels. These synthetic products had useful properties, such as less odor and greater water resistance when compared with their natural versions. Initial sales were disappointing, however, as the company struggled to create markets for these new products. But such chemicals were part of Hercules’s transformation from a producer of commodities made from raw materials into a creator of synthetic chemicals.


R. H. Dunham Laying Cornerstone (1930)

By 1930 the list of Hercules’s new products was growing monthly. The Hercules Experimental Station, located in Kenvil, New Jersey, was by then unable to handle the company’s research needs. A new site was chosen in Wilmington, Delaware, to serve as Hercules’s new Headquarters and Research Station. At the dedication ceremony in 1930, President R. H. Dunham remarked, “I lay this corner-stone with the thought that . . . Hercules men and women in the years to come may find a common rallying place where useful things can be done for the benefit of our company and the world at large.”


Newspaper Clipping: Explosion at Kenvil Plant (September 12, 1940)

On September 12, 1940, three violent explosions destroyed a Hercules smokeless-powder plant in Kenvil, New Jersey. Fifty-five employees died and more than a hundred were injured in the blasts, which could be felt as far as 70 miles away. At first investigators thought the explosion was the work of saboteurs from a nearby pro-Nazi German American Bund camp, but the real culprit was a misunderstanding of how smokeless powder burned in large quantities. The lessons learned from the plant’s destruction influenced the design of new government ordnance plants built during World War II.


Female Worker during World War II (circa 1941–1945)

In 1940 the War Department selected Hercules to run a new ordnance plant being built in Radford, Virginia. This plant employed nearly 9,000 people, more than that employed by the entire Hercules Company before the war. In this picture an employee at the plant cuts strands of .50-caliber powder being extruded from a press.


President of Hercules, Charles Higgins, Fires a Bazooka (circa 1941–1945)

In the opening days of World War II, rockets propelled by bazookas proved to be an effective antiaircraft and antitank weapon. Hercules’s Sunflower Ordnance Works was outfitted to make the rocket powder used in bazookas and became the largest producer of rocket powder in the United States. In this photograph Hercules president Charles Higgins fires a bazooka while visiting the facility.


Thanite (1944)

Thanite, a terpene-based insecticide, was developed by the Naval Stores and Research divisions as one of Hercules’s several forays into the insecticide market. It proved to be particularly popular during World War II after ingredients for other insecticides were reallocated by the War Production Board. In 1944 the U.S. government provided funds to Hercules to build a DDT plant in Parlin, New Jersey. Thanite soon fell out of favor as DDT replaced it in most applications.


Minuteman (circa 1959)

After the Soviet Union’s first successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb in 1953, the United States began a vast program to build missiles capable of carrying atomic weapons from the interior of the United States to the Soviet Union. The Minuteman, which fires in three stages, was the country’s first solid-fuel motor used in the intercontinental ballistic missile program; these missiles could be launched much more quickly than their liquid-fueled predecessors. Hercules built the stage-three motor (pictured here), which fired 120 seconds after launch and was contained within a filament-wound fiberglass case. Hercules soon followed this motor with the A-2, used on the U.S. Navy’s submarine-launched Polaris missiles.


Pegasus Rocket (circa 1990)

In 1988 Hercules acquired an equity stake in Orbital Sciences Corporation, which specializes in the manufacture and launch of satellites. Hercules used this newly acquired expertise to produce the Pegasus rocket, which was designed to be launched from a B-52 while in flight and to carry commercial satellites into orbit. The Pegasus rocket is still in use today.

The images for this photoessay come from the Hercules Archives at the Science History Institute.