Alfred Nobel is famous for the annual prizes in science, literature, and peace awarded in his name.
Although he was born into poverty, his family members were creative and entrepreneurial; they worked hard and became successful. Alfred was the scientist of the family, inventing and manufacturing dynamite, the blasting cap, gelignite and ballistite. He grew fantastically rich on the proceeds of his explosives businesses.
In his last will and testament, he bequeathed over ninety percent of his fortune to fund the Nobel Prizes.
Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Sweden’s capital city, Stockholm, on October 21, 1833.
His father was Immanuel Nobel, a self-made engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur who had been formally schooled only to the age of 14. His mother was Andriette Ahlsell, an accountant’s daughter.
Although at first Immanuel Nobel’s business prospered, by the time Alfred was born, his father was bankrupt. A series of business misfortunes followed by the family home burning to the ground had left the family penniless.
Alfred was their fourth-born child and barely survived his first few days. He suffered ill-health for most of his life. Alfred’s mother and her sickly son formed a strong bond through the years of constant care she gave him during his frequent illnesses.
When Alfred was four years old, his father left Sweden for Finland where he had been offered business opportunities; it was a long time before he sent any money home. Alfred’s maternal grandfather gave his daughter, Alfred’s mother, money to start a tiny grocery store in which she worked from first thing in the morning to last thing at night for a small profit.
Alfred began school aged seven – a school for impoverished children called Jacob’s Parish Apologist School. The school’s pupils and teachers were tough; there were frequent fights in the playground and most pupils were beaten by their teachers every day for any small mistakes in their schoolwork.
Alfred did well in his schoolwork, which made his absent father proud.
Immanuel, Alfred’s father, had also been doing well, forming a company producing arms for Russia’s military. Now wealthy, and the owner of a foundry and a factory, he sent for his family to join him in Russia in the fall of 1842. Alfred was aged nine when he sailed for Russia’s capital St. Petersburg. There it took him just a year to learn Russian fluently.
Instead of going to school, the Nobel children were taught by private tutors. Immanuel was a strong advocate of the Protestant work ethic. He taught his children that they could shape their own future prosperity with hard work and dedication. They were tutored and driven to work for long hours every day.
Some children would have found this oppressive, but Alfred prospered. He loved learning, and added English, French and German to the languages he could speak fluently. His tutors were of the highest quality – he was taught chemistry, his favorite subject, by university professors.
Meanwhile, Immanuel’s business was growing fast and he was making a wide and growing range of arms.
European and US Tour
At about the age of 16, Alfred considered becoming a writer.
He offered Alfred the opportunity to travel around Europe and the USA if he abandoned his literary aspirations and concentrated on working in the family’s prospering industrial and arms businesses.
Alfred agreed. On his tour he spent time in place of business interest – laboratories and factories – and spent extended amounts of time in Paris and New York. When, aged 19, he returned to Russia in 1852, he worked in the family business: by now it had about 1,000 employees.
Ill-health, Nitroglycerin, and Financial Trouble
Back in Russia, Alfred worked hard but suffered ill-health periodically.
By the time he was 25, the family business was in severe trouble. After its 1856 defeat in the Crimean War, Russia’s government stopped paying its bills. During the Crimean war, Immanuel had unsuccessfully tried to devise arms based on a new explosive, much more powerful than gunpowder, called nitroglycerin, but the substance proved difficult to detonate reliably.
Alfred had learned a lot about nitroglycerin in Paris from Ascanio Sobrero, the chemist who had first produced it, and he would return to experimenting with it a few years later.
The Nobels could not generate enough other work to compensate for the lost business from the Russian government. They liquidated most of their business, leaving what remained in the care of one of Alfred’s older brothers, Ludvig, who actually went on to make a great success of it.
Alfred’s parents returned to Sweden with a small amount of money. Alfred and his brother Robert stayed in Russia, sharing an apartment in St. Petersburg. Alfred set up a laboratory in the kitchen and began working on inventions.
In 1862, aged 29, he discovered that certain mixtures of nitroglycerin mixed with gunpowder allowed reliable detonation. His older brothers Robert and Ludvig helped him with large-scale testing on a frozen canal outside St. Petersburg.
Alfred Nobel’s Achievements
Nobel had an extraordinarily innovative mind, from which new ideas poured.
His genius was bolstered by steely determination to succeed and a huge capacity for hard work. These were driven by bitter memories of the poverty his family endured when he was a young boy.
Early in 1863, Nobel returned from Russia to his hometown of Stockholm. Very soon he began experimenting in a laboratory on a small industrial site his father had taken in Heleneborg, outside the city. Although never physically strong, he worked 18 hour days, personally performing hundreds of experiments.
After learning how to detonate nitroglycerin with a small amount of gunpowder, Nobel began producing nitroglycerin in late 1863, with significant production beginnning in the summer of 1864.
However, disaster struck in September 1864. In a laboratory housed in a shed at Heleneborg, Nobel’s younger brother Emil was working alongside a student fulfilling a nitroglycerin order from a railroad company carving out a tunnel through rock. An accident in the shed caused a huge explosion, killing the pair instantly. Also killed were a young cleaner, a young boy, and a carpenter who, unluckily, was passing the site.
Although he was upset about the deaths, Nobel continued production of nitroglycerin. Demand for the explosive was so strong that by the beginning of the 1870s Nobel had opened production facilities – some of which would be blown up in accidents – all over Europe and in the USA.
Following nitroglycerin’s success, Nobel spent several years grappling with foreign patent offices whose rules made it difficult for a foreigner to prove he was entitled to a patent. He also spent precious time and energy battling with a number of crooks and shysters who tried to profit from his invention.
The Blasting Cap Detonator
In 1864, Nobel patented the blasting cap. He had performed many experiments seeking the best way to detonate explosives; in the blasting cap, he invented it.
A blasting cap is a small amount of explosive that, when detonated, pushes a pressure wave through the main explosive charge causing instant detonation of all of the explosive.
Variations of Nobel’s blasting cap are still the preferred way to detonate explosives. In fact, his blasting cap invention was used for over 50 years without modification.
In November 1863, Nobel mixed nitroglycerin with porous substances such as coal and produced a very powerful and stable explosive that could be detonated reliably.
In January 1864, he applied for a Swedish patent for this mixture. He then did nothing. He was too busy manufacturing and selling nitroglycerin and fighting patent disputes.
As he saw more and more nitroglycerin accidents occurring, Nobel returned to his experiments with nitroglycerin and porous substances. These experiments resulted in his creation of dynamite. His September 1866 Swedish patent reads:
Nobel chose the word dynamite from the Greek word dynamis, which means power. He believed it would be used mainly for peaceful purposes, because:
Dynamite was safer to handle than nitroglycerin, but not as powerful an explosive.
In 1866, Nobel tried to produce an explosive gel for the first time. He was finally successful in 1875, inventing gelignite, made of gelatinized glycerol and nitrocellulose. He invented gelignite in Paris, where he had settled permanently in 1873.
Gelignite was better than dynamite in that it was more powerful; it could be used underwater making it much more versatile; and it did not suffer from sweating, which happened when nitroglycerin sometimes oozed out of dynamite rendering it dangerously unstable.
Gelignite was very stable, very safe to handle, and could be molded easily to any shape. It was another great commercial success for Nobel, but success did not happen overnight. Gelignite was more expensive than dynamite, and although it was a safer product, its manufacturing process was actually more hazardous than dynamite’s.
Nobel invented ballistite while living in Paris. He patented it in the UK in 1887 and the USA in 1891 as a smokeless propellant to be used, for example, in bullets and artillery shells. Ballistite was made using nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine.
The French military had no interest in the product, but Nobel managed to license it to Italy’s military. This resulted in a nasty media campaign against him in France orchestrated by the French government. The French police raided his laboratory and confiscated materials from it.
In 1891, Nobel left France forever, and moved to Italy.
Throughout his adult life, Nobel lived with an internal conflict. He saw himself as an honest, hardworking scientist, inventor and businessman. He remembered his impoverished roots, and gave a lot of his money to help the poor.
Yet, because of the huge amount of money he made from arms, he knew he was regarded by many people as villainous. In fact, soon after the death of his brother Ludvig in 1888, Alfred turned to the newspaper obituaries. There he discovered his own obituary had been published in error. He read: “The Merchant of Death is Dead.”
This could hardly have been comforting reading!
It calls to mind the image of Scrooge transported by the Ghost of Christmas Future to see that nobody was grieving at his funeral.
Having glimpsed one possible future, Nobel, like Scrooge, decided to use his money to shape a better world.
Nobel bequeathed 94 percent of his enormous wealth to fund five annual prizes in:
- medical science or physiology
- the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses
The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901.
And, of course, we must remember that Nobel’s explosives were frequently used for peaceful purposes, creating, for example, hydroelectric dams and transport links, without which our societies would be much less prosperous than they are.
Some Personal Details and the End
By the early 1870s, Nobel was wealthy and spending most of his life on trains traveling around Europe to his factories and business meetings.
In 1873, aged 40, he moved from Stockholm to Paris. He had enjoyed the time he spent there when he was younger and Paris was closer than Stockholm to most of his business interests. Also, Paris was a more culturally sophisticated city. He could afford a large, prestigious house in one of the city’s best neighborhoods. Language wasn’t a problem – he spoke French fluently. Nobel’s Paris home became a sort of business headquarters, where he invited businessmen and financiers for discussions.
Nobel enjoyed a fine, large home in Paris. It was equipped with an extensive private library and its own stables for the thoroughbred horses he enjoyed riding. Although he lived in a grand style, he remembered his own humble start and frequently gave money to the poor.
One day, he asked one of his servants what gift she would like from him for her forthcoming wedding. The clever young woman replied, “as much as you earn in one day master.” Nobel admired her canny response and gave her what she asked for. His gift, valued in today’s US dollars, was a six-figure sum.
Despite his wealth, Nobel was a shy, reserved, and lonely man who found it difficult to make friends, particularly with women; he believed women found him unattractive.
As a young man in St. Petersburg, he proposed marriage to a young woman called Alexandra, who turned him down.
In Paris, in 1876, he employed the Austrian Countess Bertha Kinsky as his personal assistant. He quickly fell in love with her. It seems she had a lot of affection for him too, but she was already engaged to be married. She left Paris to be married. Nobel and the Countess kept in touch by letter for the rest of Nobel’s life. Nobel was impressed by her high ideals, including her pacifism: she might have been the inspiration behind the Nobel Peace Prize. The Countess was awarded the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the peace movement.
In 1876, possibly on the rebound from his doomed relationship with the Countess, the 43 year-old Nobel began a relationship with a 20-year-old Austrian shop assistant by the name of Sophie Hess. He was embarrassed about their age difference and the fact that she was not very well educated. She also had no interest whatsoever in improving her education and her tastes in all things struck him as brash. She lived in Austria, and he would travel from Paris to see her. He did not introduce her to his acquantances in Paris. In 1891, Sophie had another man’s baby. Nobel continued to send her money until finally breaking off with her when she married the father of her child in 1894.
After the witch hunt he suffered in France for selling ballistite to Italy, Nobel left Paris forever in 1891, aged 57. He settled in the small coastal resort city of San Remo in Italy.
In his final years, Nobel suffered from heart disease, which, ironically, was treated with small doses of nitroglycerin.
Alfred Nobel died aged 63 in San Remo on December 10, 1896 following a stroke.
Most of his fortune went to fund the Nobel Prizes. He did not approve of inherited wealth. He thought parents and wealthy relatives should only bequeath money to provide their children with a first-class education and the basics in life; all other accumulated wealth should be fed back into society in some beneficial way.
Although at one time he had stated that his body should be turned into plant fertilizer using acid, in the end he was cremated. His ashes were deposited in Stockholm’s Northern Cemetery.
Author of this page: The Doc
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Kenne Fant, translated by Marianne Ruuth
Alfred Nobel: A Biography
Arcade Publishing, New York, 1993