by Ron Kurtus (revised 19 January 2022)
Alfred Nobel (1834-1896) was an inventor and engineer, whose most famous discovery was that of dynamite.
He was from a family of Swedish engineers that gained their wealth producing weapons and oil for the Russians. Nobel became one of the world's richest men, due to his businesses and inventions.
Upon his death, he willed much of his fortune to create the Nobel Prize.
Questions you may have include:
- What did Nobel do?
- How did the Nobel Prize come about?
- What lessons can be learned from his life?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 21, 1833.
Ages 1 to 9 years (1834-1842)
Alfred's father, Immanuel, was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and buildings in Stockholm. Bankruptcy forced Immanuel to seek other income, so when Alfred was 4, his father left the family and moved to Finland and then Russia, seeking work.
He started a mechanical workshop in St. Petersburg, Russia that provided equipment for the Russian army. Immanuel was able to get a contract to build naval mines that the Russians used to block enemy naval ships from threatening St. Petersburg. They were simple devices consisting of submerged wooden casks filled with gun powder, but they prove invaluable to the Russians.
Success in his business ventures allowed Immanuel to send for his family. When Alfred was 9 years old, the family moved to Russia. There, Alfred and his brothers were educated by private instructors in the humanities and natural sciences.
Ages 10 to 19 (1843-1852)
As he grew up, Alfred's primary interests were in English literature and poetry, although he was skilled in chemistry and physics. By the time he was 17, Alfred was also fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German.
Alfred's father wanted his sons to be engineers, and he disliked Alfred's interest in poetry. So he sent Alfred abroad to study chemical engineering. He received much of his chemical training in Paris, France. He also traveled to Italy, Germany and the United States.
Nobel worked in chemistry in Paris, but then moved back with his family in St. Petersburg and later in Stockholm, where he helped in his father's business. He experimented with nitroglycerine for years until he finally invented dynamite.
Ages 20 to 29 years (1853-1862)
Nobel continued to work in chemistry in Paris. There he met Ascanio Sobrero, an Italian chemist who discovered nitroglycerine. This substance was so dangerous and powerful that if you put a single drop of nitroglycerin on the table and hit it with a hammer, it would explode and blow the head of the hammer off its handle. A few years later, after he had returned to Italy, Sobrero was seriously injured from an explosion of nitroglycerin.
In 1862, at the age of 29, Nobel returned to St. Petersburg to his in the family business, which was booming because of its deliveries to the Russian army during the Crimean War. Alfred told his father about nitroglycerine, and they worked together to try to develop it as a commercially useful explosive.
Ages 30 to 39 (1863-1872)
A few years after the Crimean War ended in 1856, Immanuel Nobel was again forced into bankruptcy. In 1863, part of the family—including Alfred—left St. Petersburg and returned to Stockholm. Immanuel and his sons rebuilt their business—this time concentrating on the oil industry—and soon became wealthy again.
Alfred was still interested in developing nitroglycerine as an explosive. Unfortunately, in 1864, one experiment resulted in an explosion that killed Alfred's brother Emil and several other people.
This accident did not deter Alfred, as he continued to produce and experiment with nitroglycerin. Nobel was carefully trying different ways to make Nitroglycerin more stable, so it could be used in some useful manner.
In 1866, at age 33, Nobel had a full test tube of the substance--enough to easily blow up his laboratory. He was just ready to pour a drop into another test tube. He was very nervous, when suddenly the test tube full of nitroglycerin slipped out of his hands and fell to the floor!
Luckily, the tube fell into a packing box filled with sawdust. If it would have hit the floor, there probably would have been a great explosion, killing Nobel and others around him. The nitroglycerin ran out of the test tube and was absorbed in the sawdust. Not letting the material go to waste, Nobel started to test the mixture and found that it could be handled easier and was not as explosive as in the liquid form.
He found that mixing nitroglycerine with silica would turn the liquid into a paste which could be shaped into rods that would be relatively safe, could be shaped into rods to use in blasting, and could be easily detonated. In 1867 he patented this material under the name of dynamite. His invention came at a time when the diamond drilling crown and pneumatic drill were also being used in blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work.
As a result of the invention of dynamite, as well as his other inventions, Nobel built up a number of companies and laboratories in different countries around the world. He held patents on 355 inventions and became one of the world's richest men.
Ages 40 to 59 (1873-1882)
But his intensive work and traveling took its toll. In 1876, at age 43, he realized that he was an old bachelor. He even put an advertisement in the Paris newspaper for a companion. One reply was an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Kinsky. Although their romance ended, and she married someone else, they still remained friends. Her anti-war views were said to have influenced Alfred's views.
Painting of Nobel, working in his laboratory
Nobel was a man of multiple and varied passions. He read in six languages and traveled extensively. He also wrote poetry and drama—fulfilling his youthful dreams and desires.
Nobel had became a rich man because of his discovery. However, he felt guilty because dynamite was later used in warfare, resulting in many people being killed. He was very interested in social and peace-related issues and held what were considered radical views in his era.
In 1888, Alfred's brother, Ludvig, died while visiting Cannes, and a French newspaper mistakenly published Alfred's obituary. It condemned him for his invention of military explosives (not, as is commonly quoted, dynamite, which was mainly used for civilian applications) and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, Le marchand de la mort est mort ("The merchant of death is dead") and went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Alfred (who never had a wife or children) was disappointed with what he read and concerned with how he would be remembered.
On 27 November 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. After taxes and bequests to individuals, Nobel's will allocated 94% of his total assets, 31,225,000 Swedish kronor, to establish the five Nobel Prizes. This converted to £1,687,837 (GBP) at the time. In 2012, the capital was worth around SEK 3.1 billion (US$472 million, EUR 337 million), which is almost twice the amount of the initial capital, taking inflation into account.
So, he put much of his money into a trust fund to promote the peaceful use of science. The Nobel Prizes became an extension and a fulfillment of his lifetime interest. That is called the Nobel Prize, which is given every year. Because of his interest in literature and poetry, there is also the prize for literature.
Final year - 1896
On November 29, 1896, Nobel made out his last will and testament that donated much of his fortune to the creation of the Nobel Prize.
Alfred Nobel died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 10, 1896, at the age of 63.
Nobel was from a scientific family that became very wealthy. For years he worked on being able to manage the volatile liquid nitroglycerine, until he was final able to invent dynamite. He formed many companies and became one of the world's richest men. Due to his interest in peace, science and literature, he established the Nobel Prize and donated his wealth to the prize in his final will.
Lessons learned from Nobel's life include:
- Having rich, intelligent parents can give a person a great head-start
- A good education is important
- Persistence can pay off
- A workaholic may end up lonely
- It is enjoyable to have varied interests
- Try to give back to society (before you die)
Taste is often determined by character
Resources and references
Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Nobel Prize - NobelPrize.org
Alfred Nobel Biography - Biography.com
Alfred Nobel - Wikipedia
History of Dynamite: Alfred Nobel - About.com
History of the Nobel Prizes - About.com
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