Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 21, 1833.(Encarta) His
father Immanuel Nobel was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and
buildings in Stockholm. In connection with his construction work Immanuel Nobel
also experimented with different techniques of blasting rock. Alfred’s mother,
Andrietta Ahlsell came from a wealthy family. Due to misfortunes in the
construction work caused by the loss of some barges of building material,
Immanuel Nobel was forced into bankruptcy the same year Alfred Nobel was born.

In 1837, Immanuel Nobel left Stockholm and his family to start a new career in
Finland and in Russia. To support the family, Andrietta Nobel started a grocery
store which provided a modest income. Meanwhile Immanuel Nobel was successful in
his new enterprise in St. Petersburg, Russia. He started a mechanical workshop
which provided equipment for the Russian army and he also convinced the Tsar and
his generals that naval mines could be used to block enemy naval ships from
threatening the city. The naval mines designed by Immanuel Nobel were simple
devices consisting of submerged wooden casks filled with gun powder. Anchored
below the surface of the Gulf of Finland they effectively deterred the British
Royal Navy from moving into firing range of St. Petersburg during the Crimean
war (1853-1856).

Immanuel Nobel was also a pioneer in arms manufacture and in designing steam
engines. Successful in his industrial and business ventures, Immanuel Nobel was
able, in 1842, to bring his family to St. Petersburg. There, his sons were given
a first class education by private teachers. The training included natural
sciences, languages and literature. By the age of 17, Alfred Nobel was fluent in
Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in
English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics. Alfred’s
father, who wanted his sons to join his enterprise as engineers, disliked
Alfred’s interest in poetry and found his son rather introverted. In order to
widen Alfred’s horizons his father sent him abroad for further training in
chemical engineering. During a two year period, Alfred Nobel visited Sweden,
Germany, France and the United States.(Schuck p. 113) In Paris, the city he
came to like best, he worked in the private laboratory of Professor T.J. Pelouze,
a famous chemist. There he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who,
three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerin, a highly explosive liquid.

Nitroglycerin was produced by mixing glycerin with sulfuric and nitric acid. It
was considered too dangerous to be of any practical use.(Schuck p. 87) Although
its explosive power greatly exceeded that of gun powder, the liquid would
explode in a very unpredictable manner if subjected to heat and pressure.

Alfred Nobel became very interested in nitroglycerin and how it could be put to
practical use in construction work. He also realized that the safety problems
had to be solved and a method had to be developed for the controlled detonation
of nitroglycerin. In the United States he visited John Ericsson, the Swedish-
American engineer who had developed the screw propeller for ships. In 1852,
Alfred Nobel was asked to come back and work in the family enterprise which was
booming because of its deliveries to the Russian army. Together with his father
he performed experiments to develop nitroglycerin as a commercially and
technically useful explosive. As the war ended and conditions changed, Immanuel
Nobel was again forced into bankruptcy. Immanuel and two of his sons, Alfred and
Emil, left St. Petersburg together and returned to Stockholm. His other two sons,
Robert and Ludvig, remained in St. Petersburg. With some difficulties they
managed to salvage the family enterprise and then went on to develop the oil
industry in the southern part of the Russian empire. They were very successful
and became some of the wealthiest persons of their time. (Compton’s)
After his return to Sweden in 1863, Alfred Nobel concentrated on developing
nitroglycerin as an explosive. Several explosions, including one (1864) in which
his brother Emil and several other persons were killed, convinced the
authorities that nitroglycerin production was exceedingly dangerous. They
forbade further experimentation with nitroglycerin within the Stockholm city
limits and Alfred Nobel had to move his experimentation to a barge anchored on
Lake Malaren. Alfred was not discouraged and in 1864 he was able to start mass
production of nitroglycerin. To make the handling of nitroglycerin safer Alfred
Nobel experimented with different additives. He soon found that mixing
nitroglycerin with silica would turn the liquid into a paste which could be
shaped into rods of a size and form suitable for insertion into drilling
holes.(Internet Site) In 1867 he patented this material under the name of
dynamite. To be able to detonate the dynamite rods he also invented a detonator
(blasting cap) which could be ignited by lighting a fuse. These inventions were
made at the same time as the diamond drilling crown and the pneumatic drill came
into general use. Together these inventions drastically reduced the cost of
blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of
construction work. The market for dynamite and detonating caps grew very
rapidly and Alfred Nobel also proved himself to be a very skillful entrepreneur
and business man.

By 1865 his factory in Krmmel near Hamburg, Germany, was exporting
nitroglycerin explosives to other countries in Europe, America and Australia.

Over the years he founded factories and laboratories in some 90 different places
in more than 20 countries.(Encarta) Although he lived in Paris much of his life
he was constantly traveling. Victor Hugo at one time described him as “Europe’s
richest vagabond.” When he was not traveling or engaging in business activities
Nobel himself worked intensively in his various laboratories, first in Stockholm
and later in Hamburg (Germany), Ardeer (Scotland), Paris (France), Karlskoga
(Sweden) and San Remo (Italy). He focused on the development of explosives
technology as well as other chemical inventions, including such materials as
synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk etc. By the time of his death in
1896 he had 355 patents.(Compton’s)
Intensive work and travel did not leave much time for a private life. At the age
of 43 he was feeling like an old man. At this time he advertised in a newspaper
“Wealthy, highly educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in
languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” The most qualified
applicant turned out to be an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Kinsky. After
working for Nobel for about two months she decided to return to Austria to marry
Count Arthur on Suture. In spite of this Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner
remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the
years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She
wrote a famous book, titled, “Lay Down Arms” and became a prominent figure in
the peace movement. No doubt this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his
final will which was to include a Prize for persons or organizations who
promoted peace. Several years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian
Storting (Parliament) decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von

Alfred Nobel’s greatness lay in his ability to combine the penetrating mind of
the scientist and inventor with the forward-looking dynamism of the
industrialist. Nobel was very interested in social and peace-related issues and
held what were considered radical views in his era. He had a great interest in
literature and wrote his own poetry and dramatic works. The Nobel Prizes became
an extension and a fulfillment of his lifetime interests.

Many of the companies founded by Nobel have developed into industrial
enterprises that still play a prominent role in the world economy, for example
Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), Great Britain, Societe Centrale de Dynamite,
France, and Dyno Industries in Norway. Toward the end of his life, he acquired
the company AB Bofors in Karlskoga, where Bjorkborn Manor became his Swedish

Alfred Nobel died in San Remo, Italy, on December 10, 1896. When his will was
opened it came as a surprise that his fortune was to be used for Prizes in
Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. The executors
of his will were two young engineers, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist.

They set about forming the Nobel Foundation as an organization to take care of
the financial assets left by Nobel for this purpose and to coordinate the work
of the Prize-Awarding Institutions. This was not without its difficulties since
the will was contested by relatives and questioned by authorities in various

But as we all know, the legacy of Alfred Nobel lives on today. The prizes named
after him are still the most coveted prizes for the recipients in their
respective fields. Everyone will remember Alfred Nobel as a daring pioneer who
knew no limits.

Many of the new advanced scientific discoveries made in the last century were
surely helped out by the work of Nobel. His Nobel prizes reward people of
science and enable them to keep churning out new ways of accomplishing new feats
that have never been attempted before