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Alfred Nobel

inventor of dynamite

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 21, 1833, the third of six children born to Immanuel, a successful engineer and builder, and Karolina Andriette Ahlsell Nobel. A series of bad business decisions and accidents forced Immanuel Nobel into bankruptcy the same year Alfred was born, and for the next few years the family was supported by his mother's small grocery store. In 1837, Immanuel Nobel left his family in Stockholm while he went first to Finland and then to St. Petersburg, Russia, in search of work. In St. Petersburg, he started a small mechanical shop, which became quite successful as a supplier of munitions for the Russian army. By 1842 he had re-established his fortune and was able to have his family join him. His company flourished during the Crimean War (1853-1856), due in large part to his invention of a naval mine that prevented the British from getting close enough to shell St. Petersburg.

The success of Immanuel Nobel's business allowed him to hire private tutors for his children, including some of the best minds of the day. When Alfred seemed to enjoy literature more than science, his father decided to send him to Paris, where he spent a year working in the laboratory of T. Jules Pelouze (1850-1851). He spent another year travelling and studying in Italy, Germany, and the United States; one of the men he met and studied under in the United States was John Ericsson, the inventor of the screw propellor. In 1852, Alfred was called back to St. Petersburg, where he joined his father's company and began experimenting with explosives. The Nobel Company was forced into bankruptcy after the Crimean War ended and the Russian military cancelled all of its orders, and the family moved back to Stockholm in 1863.

Alfred Nobel began experimenting with nitroglycerin in 1862, while still in Russia. He obtained his first patents the following year, one for the use of nitroglycerin as an industrial explosive and another for a detonator that used a strong shock rather than heat to ignite the nitroglycerin. He formed Nitroglycerin AB in Stockholm in 1864, the same year that his brother Emil was killed in a nitroglycerine explosion at Heleneborg, Stockholm. He improved his detonator design in 1865, and established the Alfred Nobel & Co. factory in Krümmel, near Hamburg, Germany, that same year. He established the United States Blasting Oil Company in 1866, the same year that the Krümmel plant was destroyed by an explosion.

Although he had become quite successful in the manufacture of nitroglycerin, Nobel had also become acutely aware of the dangers associated with the volatile explosive and was determined to find a way to make it safe. Working on a raft in the middle of the river because the city of Stockholm had by then forbidden him from working with nitroglycerin within the city limits, Nobel found that nitroglycerin could be stabilized by mixing it with a type of diatomaceous earth. The resulting mixture was not only much more stable than liquid nitroglycerin, it could also be formed into a tube, and the end result was a product he called dynamite, which he patented in 1867, along with a detonator that could be ignited by lighting a fuse.

Dynamite quickly became a necessity on any engineering project that required removing large amounts of rock and earth (such as tunnels), and Nobel quickly became a very wealthy man. By the time of his death, he held 355 patents and had companies and manufacturing plants in Sweden, Germany, Scotland, France, the United States, and Italy; many of his companies are still in business today. In 1891, Nobel moved to San Remo, Italy, where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 10, 1896.

When his will was read three weeks later, everyone was surprised to learn that Nobel had left the bulk of his $9 million estate to a "fund for the advancement of science, the interest upon which is to be applied to the furnishing of prizes for competition open to the world" -- the Nobel Prizes. His will established five awards, for accomplishments in chemistry, literature, medicine or physiology, peace, and physics, but his family contested the will in court, and the document, written in Nobel's own hand, without legal counsel, was a legal mess. He had entrusted the bulk of his estate to a foundation that did not yet exist, he did not explain the mechanism for determining prize-winners, and he had not discussed his plan with the groups assigned in his will to hand out the prizes -- the Norwegian Parliament (responsible for the Peace Prize); the Karolinska Institute (for the prize in medicine); the Swedish Academy of Sciences (for prizes in chemistry and physics); and the Swedish Academy (for the prize in literature). His own countrymen complained that it was immoral to hand a Swede's wealth to the world while many of Sweden's own people went hungry. It took several years to untangle the lawsuits and establish the prize protocols, and the first Nobel Prizes were not awarded until 1901. Ironically, the 1905 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to Bertha von Suttner, who for a brief time had worked as Nobel's housekeeper before becoming a leading peace activist.

Nobel Prize Foundation

John Ericsson
Nobel Prizes

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This page was last updated on June 25, 2018.