Alfred Bernhard Nobel
SWEDISH MANUFACTURER, INVENTOR, AND PHILANTHROPIST
Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 21, 1833, as the third of four sons to Immanuel and Andriette (Ahlsell) Nobel. That same year, his father, an engineer and builder, went bankrupt when barges full of building materials were lost at sea. In 1837 Immanuel left Stockholm and moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he started manufacturing equipment for the Russian army. His factory flourished, especially with the manufacture and sale of naval mines of his own construction.
Immanuel was eventually able to bring his family to Russia, where his sons were given a private education. Alfred Nobel's interests ranged from literature and poetry to physics and chemistry. Nobel's command of foreign languages was excellent; by the age of seventeen he was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English, and German, which aided him in his future business transactions.
In 1863 Nobel began trying to master the process of the synthesis of nitroglycerine. His first partial success was a mixture of nitroglycerine with black gunpowder, called "blasting oil." The danger of working with such an unstable material was a problem. After an explosion in Nobel's Stockholm factory that claimed five lives, including that of his brother Emil (1843–1864), the municipal authorities forbade him to carry out further experiments in the town. He then continued his work on a ship anchored on Lake Mälären.
Nobel began to realize that, for handling purposes, nitroglycerine would have to be absorbed in some kind of stabilizing carrier. After many unsuccessful trials using sawdust, charcoal, paper, and brick-dust, he finally succeeded with Kieselguhr, a diatomaceous earth found in Germany. Even when saturated with nitroglycerine, this earth was quite safe to handle, a blasting cap and detonator being required to force it to explode. Originally called "Kieselguhr-dynamite," its name was later abridged to "dynamite" (the Greek dynamis meaning "power"). Nobel was granted a patent for dynamite in England on May 7, 1867, and on September 13 of the same year in Sweden.
In 1868 Nobel and his father were awarded the Letterstedt Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Nobel highly valued this award, which was the only prize he ever received, and which was perhaps the source of his idea for a similar prize he later established.
Nobel, one of the wealthiest men of his time, constantly moved between his factories and his houses equipped with laboratories. He was both an industrialist and an administrator, handling his business without a secretary. As he wrote in a letter: "My home is where I work, and I work everywhere." His prodigious activities had a negative effect on his health, which had been poor since his youth. After 1890 he preferred to stay at his home in San Remo, Italy. By that time he had 350 patents and ninety-three factories in several countries.
On November 27, 1895, Nobel wrote his last will, in which he generously bequeathed his wealth to his relatives and friends. The second part of his will, however, is more famous, for it is here that he established the Nobel Prizes. Nobel's property that was designated for the fund was worth seventy million Swedish crowns, and has continued to grow since then. Nobel Prizes are awarded in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Since 1969 a Nobel Prize, funded by the Swedish Bank, has also been awarded for outstanding achievements in economy.
Nobel died on December 10, 1896, in San Remo. Shortly before his death he wrote: "It sounds like the irony of fate that I should be ordered to take nitroglycerin internally," which had been prescribed to him as a treatment for angina pectoris. The Nobel Foundation, established in accordance with his will, awarded the first Nobel Prizes in 1901.
SEE ALSO Explosions .
Fant, Kenne (1993). Alfred Nobel: A Biography, tr. Marianne Ruuth. New York: Arcade.
Hellberg, Thomas, and Jansson, Lars Magnus (1986). Alfred Nobel. Karlshamn, Sweden: Lagerblads Förlag AB.
Ihde, Aaron J. (1984). Development of Modern Chemistry. New York: Dover.
Roberts, Royston M. (1989). Seredipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. New York: Wiley.
"Alfred Nobel: Biographical." The Nobel Foundation. Available from http://www.nobel.se/nobel/alfred-nobel/biographical/index.html .