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Alfred Nobel
Swedish inventor and philanthropist

Nobel invented dynamite and blasting caps and held impending financial disaster in 1858, Nobel, because of patents for more than 350 inventions, but he is his fluency in English, was sent to England to try to ne- remembered mostly for the provision he made in his gotiate financing for the business. He failed in this at- last will for the distribution of the income from the bulk tempt, however, and his defeated father returned to Swe- of his estate to provide annual prizes to those who den. Nobel and his brothers remained in Russia, but in confer upon humankind the greatest benefits in the 1863, Nobel returned to Sweden to work with his father.
fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, Granted his first patent in 1857, Nobel was now on the way to discovering how to control nitroglycerin for com-mercial use. His invention of the blasting cap changed Born: October 21, 1833; Stockholm, Sweden
forever the way mining, massive construction, and war Died: December 10, 1896; San Remo, Italy
Also known as: Alfred Bernhard Nobel (full name)
Area of achievement: Science and technology
Life’s Work
Early Life
Liquid nitroglycerin is among the world’s most volatile Alfred Bernhard Nobel spent his life in one sort of pur- substances. Nobel’s device for igniting it, the blasting suit yet is enshrined in history for something quite differ- cap, consisted of a charge of gunpowder that could be ig- ent. He was the fourth son of Immanuel and Andriette nited by a fuse and was attached to liquid nitroglycerin.
Nobel. His father was a visionary, an inventor whose for- This blasting cap gave workers who set the device time to tunes swung from one extreme to another. When the seek shelter from the ensuing explosion. So revolution- family’s fortunes were reduced, his mother operated a ary was this invention that Nobel gained fame in a matter food shop to supplement their income. Shortly before Al- of months, but his life was not free from sorrow, diffi- fred’s birth, Immanuel’s business in Sweden foundered.
In 1837, Immanuel made an attempt to reestablish him- Just a year after the blasting cap was invented, No- self in Finland but failed. By 1842, however, he was a bel’s younger brother, Emil, a twenty-one-year-old stu- modestly successful manufacturer of mechanical de- dent who worked in his brother’s laboratory making det- vices in St. Petersburg, Russia. He flourished there until onators, was in the laboratory when it caught fire and 1858, when the Russian government canceled its con- exploded, killing five people who were working there, tracts, creating for him a new round of financial difficul- including Emil. The loss of this young son was so devas- tating to Immanuel that he soon suffered a paralytic During his time in Russia, Immanuel had become fas- stroke, from which he never recovered. Nothing, how- cinated with the explosive qualities of nitroglycerin, re- ever—not even Emil’s death—could shake Nobel’s be- alizing that if the substance could be controlled it would lief in what he was doing, and he proceeded to open ex- have tremendous potential as military weaponry as well plosives factories across Europe and in the United States.
as for use in heavy industry and mining. Alfred, frail, col- So great was his confidence that Nobel yielded his orless, and thin, was a sickly child with a spinal defect, patent rights when he opened foreign factories, agreeing who early shared this interest in nitroglycerin with his fa- that instead of receiving royalty payments he would re- ther. Often he was too ill to attend school, and, in Russia, ceive a substantial share of the proceeds from each fac- he was taught exclusively by tutors. He showed a natural tory. It is this arrangement that caused him to be num- gift for languages, acquiring them as he traveled. He had bered among the world’s wealthiest people by the time lived in Finland and Russia, and he spoke Swedish at home. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, No- Nitroglycerin is a dangerous substance because it de- bel traveled in Germany, France, and the United States, composes quickly; this decomposition inevitably leads learning languages as he went. Nobel, always dedicated to explosions. Few people realized during the 1860’s and to work, was a perfectionist, always demanding more of 1870’s just how dangerous nitroglycerin was to work himself than more healthy people do.
with. Two years after Nobel’s laboratory exploded in Nobel and his brothers Ludvig and Robert worked in 1864, a ship carrying nitroglycerin exploded and cap- their father’s plant in St. Petersburg. When it faced an sized near Panama, killing seventy-four people. Within and to almost 67,000 tons produced by ninety-threefactories—in all of which he had a financial interest—by the year of his death. Everyone connected with theproduction of dynamite was becoming rich; Nobel, how-ever, because he shared in the profits of every dynamitefactory in the world, was quickly gaining a financial po-sition unheard of in Europe since the days of the Medicis.
Nobel’s interest in invention never waned. After he invented dynamite, he invented an explosive gelatinmore powerful than nitroglycerin, virtually imperviousto shock and unaffected by moisture, which predated thesophisticated plastic explosives now available. BeforeOrville and Wilbur Wright flew their airplane at KittyHawk, North Carolina, in 1903, Nobel was experiment-ing with aerial photography as an expedient and accuratemeans of cartography, mounting his cameras on rockets.
He was involved with experiments to find ways of syn-thesizing silk, rubber, and leather far in advance of thesynthetic production of nylon, synthetic rubber, and vi-nyl a half century after his death. His smokeless gunpow-der, balliste, first patented in 1887, was in great demandby armies throughout the world and added considerablyto Nobel’s coffers.
Through all this time, Nobel wandered from one place to another, buying houses in Paris, where he spent a con- Alfred Nobel. (The Nobel Foundation) siderable amount of time; at San Remo, Italy, where hebought the villa in which he eventually died; and in Swe-den at Bofors, where he spent the last summer of his life.
months of that explosion, a San Francisco warehouse, in Nobel never married and his romantic involvements which liquid nitroglycerin was stored, exploded, killing were never notably fulfilling, although he had a long, another fourteen people. Nobel’s factory near Hamburg, quite distant relationship with an Austrian, Sofie Hess, Germany, was completely destroyed by an explosion much his junior, to whom he wrote nearly daily and whom he supported during the later years of his life even Continuing disasters impelled Nobel to find a safe though she had been married to someone else.
way to store and ship nitroglycerin. Ever the inventor andthinker, Nobel knew that he had to find a way to turn ni- Significance
troglycerin into a solid substance. He realized that he had In his final years, Alfred Nobel speculated that he would to combine the liquid with something that could absorb die alone, unattended by anyone who loved him; his pre- it, and he finally settled on a siliconlike substance, kiesel- diction was accurate. He spent the summer of 1896 at his guhr, which was porous and would not add anything home, Björkborn in Bofors, after which he went to his chemically to the substance with which it was mixed. Af- home in Paris, and then to San Remo. His health was fail- ter nitroglycerin was mixed with kieselguhr, it could be ing, but he continued to work, write to his friends, and formed into shapes, wrapped in paper, then transported plan. On December 10, 1896, Nobel collapsed in his lab- or stored. The result was dynamite, so named by Nobel oratory, and that evening, with only his servants present, from the Greek word for power, dunamis.
With this advance in the latter part of the 1860’s, No- On November 27, 1895, Nobel had drafted a holo- bel was able to establish factories all over the world to graph will, replacing one that left his vast fortune essen- mass-produce one of the world’s most destructive sub- tially to relatives, servants, and friends. The new will, for stances. The production of his plants increased from which Nobel will be forever remembered, substantially a mere 11 tons in 1867 to more than 3,000 tons in 1874, reduced his personal bequests. It directed that his resid- ual estate be invested conservatively and that the income Contains a list of all Nobel laureates from 1901 to from these investments be used to establish annual prizes to be awarded with no reservations regarding nationality Fant, Kenne. Alfred Nobel: A Biography. Translated to those people whose activities are deemed to be of the from the Swedish by Marianne Ruuth. New York: greatest benefit to humankind in the fields of physics, Little, Brown, 1993. Portrays Nobel as an isolated and chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.
melancholy misanthrope, convinced of life’s absurdi- Nobel’s will was contested and was in litigation for more than three years. Afterward, however, a system was Jackson, Donald Dale. “The Nobility of Alfred Nobel.” established for the distribution of the income in the form Smithsonian 19 (November, 1988): 201-224. This of Nobel Prizes, the first set of which were awarded in substantial article, both meticulously researched and 1901. As the income from the Nobel trust has increased, extremely well written, focuses on Nobel’s pessi- the size of each award has grown to the point that in 2005 mism and loneliness and on their causes, relating the typical prize was worth over $1.3 million, more than these conditions to his establishing the Nobel Prizes.
thirty times what the same award had been worth fifty Jackson has intriguing notions concerning Hess, the The list of Nobel laureates, which has now been ex- Nobelstiftelsen. Nobel: The Man and His Prizes. Rev. ed.
panded to include a sixth field, economics, contains the New York: Elsevier, 1962. This authorized biography names of international giants in their fields: scientists of has chapters by eminent representatives from the five the stature of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Linus fields in which the awards were originally granted as Pauling; writers such as William Faulkner and T. S.
well as a biographical chapter by Henrick Schück and Eliot; physicians and physiologists such as Ivan Pavlov a chapter on Nobel and the Nobel Foundation by and Sir Alexander Fleming; and advocates of world Ragnar Sohlman. This book is a good starting point peace such as Woodrow Wilson and Albert Schweitzer.
for those wishing to know more about Alfred Nobel.
The Nobel legacy is great because of the endowment he Sohlman, Ragnar. The Legacy of Alfred Nobel: The established to recognize those who contribute most to the Story Behind the Nobel Prizes. Translated by Elspeth Harley Schubert. London: Bodley Head, 1983. This book was published originally in Swedish under thetitle Ett Testamente in 1950. Sohlman was Nobel’s as- Further Reading
sistant in the last three years of his life and served as Bergengren, Erik. Alfred Nobel: The Man and His Work.
one of the executors of his will, giving him a signifi- New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962. This cant role in establishing the Nobel award mechanism.
brief overview of Nobel’s life is supplemented by a Sohlman knew intimately the details of Nobel’s busi- list of Nobel institutions and of the awards that have ness and life, and he presents these details clearly and been granted. It is particularly valuable for its discus- directly in this excellent book, which also contains a sion of Nobel’s inventions and for its detail about the growing use and sales of dynamite. The research isextremely careful.
See also: Bertha von Suttner.
Evlanoff, Michael, and Marjorie Fluor. Alfred Nobel: Related articles in Great Events from History: The
The Loneliest Millionaire. New York: Ward Ritchie Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900: October, 1867: No- Press, 1969. This book is a study of Nobel’s personal bel Patents Dynamite; 1888-1906: Ramón y Cajal isolation and of his attempts to escape from his loneli- Shows How Neurons Work in the Nervous System; ness. It relates his establishing the Nobel Prizes to his December 11, 1890: Behring Discovers the Diphthe- guilt about the destructive effects of dynamite. Nobel ria Antitoxin; November 9, 1895: Röntgen Discovers is portrayed as a sensitive man with few roots, one X Rays; November 27, 1895: Nobel Bequeathes whose intellect was a chief and isolating concern.


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