From Dynamite to the Surveillance State

 

Did the work of Alfred Nobel lead to the surveillance state? A new book finds a connection.

The Infernal Machine: A True Story of Dynamite, Terror, and the Rise of the Modern Detective by Steven Johnson shows how dynamite, anarchists and forensic science are linked to the creation of the modern state.

Nitroglycerine, discovered in the early 19th century, offered great promise in construction, but it proved too volatile to use safely. Johnson shows how Alfred Nobel found a way to stabilize nitroglycerine; packing it in diatomaceous earth in a new product he named dynamite.

Concurrently, a new political philosophy arose in Imperial Russia: anarchism. Developed by a Russian noble, Peter Kropotkin, it held man did not need government or top-down structures, but could flourish through voluntary, cooperative effort.

Forensic science was also emerging. Pioneers, including Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton made biometric identification a useful tool in identifying criminals.

These seem to have little to do with each other. Nobel envisioned dynamite as a civil engineering tool, allowing roadbeds, tunnels and foundations to be dug more easily. Kropotkin believed anarchism a natural state, one that would produce peaceful coexistence. Forensics is concerned with crime, not civil engineering or peaceful coexistence. Johnson shows how the three entangled, often explosively.

Johnson opens by showing how Nobel developed dynamite. He next shows how Kropotkin conceived anarchism during adventures in Siberia, pioneering the route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and how Bertillon used measurement of physical characteristics in Paris to identify criminals.

The tale takes a dark turn when fanatical followers of anarchism turned to violence to bring down the state, starting in Russia. Russia was an absolute monarchy. Johnson shows how anarchists used knives and gunpowder bombs for assassination.

The violence metastasized beyond Russia into Europe and finally to North America. When assassination of political leaders failed to destroy the state, anarchists turned to terrorism, bombing public places to underscore their demands. They used dynamite bombs, due to their greater power. Soon organized crime joined in, using bombs as an extortion tool. Johnson shows how this led to the development of bomb squads in big cities, starting in New York, and eventually to centralized organizations like the FBI to counter terrorism in the early 20th century.

The Infernal Machine is a fascinating study of unintended consequences. It is a comprehensive study of an extreme political movement, organizational reaction to it, and the resulting centralization of power. Johnson has written an absorbing book.

“The Infernal Machine: A True Story of Dynamite, Terror, and the Rise of the Modern Detective,” by Steven Johnson, Crown, May 2024, 368 pages, $32.00 (Hardback), $13.99 (ebook)

This review was written by Mark Lardas, who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

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  1. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    Some years ago on these very pages, I hazarded the idea that Russian internal exile was intended to keep people “far enough from borders over which seditious pamphlets might be smuggled and far enough from chemical factories where nitric and sulfuric acids – substances needed for bomb-making – were produced.” Does anything in this book confirm or deny?

    Maybe anarchists simply stole dynamite. Until right now, I hadn’t thought of that!

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    John H. (View Comment):

    Some years ago on these very pages, I hazarded the idea that Russian internal exile was intended to keep people “far enough from borders over which seditious pamphlets might be smuggled and far enough from chemical factories where nitric and sulfuric acids – substances needed for bomb-making – were produced.” Does anything in this book confirm or deny?

    Didn’t mention that. I’d say it was unlikely.

    Maybe anarchists simply stole dynamite. Until right now, I hadn’t thought of that!

    They stole a lot of dynamite. It was easy enough to buy, though – especially in the mid-19th century when it was viewed as a construction explosive. But why should anarchists buy a corporate product?  More satisfying to steal it.

    • #2
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    In checking this out on Amazon I saw that it’s available on audible.  It so happens that I had an audible credit that I needed to use before it expired, so I used it for this.  

    • #3
  4. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    In checking this out on Amazon I saw that it’s available on audible. It so happens that I had an audible credit that I needed to use before it expired, so I used it for this.

    Win-Win.

    • #4
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