Alfred Bernhard Nobel

The Swedish chemist Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896) invented dynamite and other explosives, but he is best remembered for the Nobel Prizes, which he endowed with the bulk of his personal fortune.

Alfred Nobel was born Oct. 21, 1833, in Stockholm. His father, impecunious in the Sweden of the 1830s, was more fortunate in Russia and by 1842 had established himself in a St. Petersburg engineering and armaments concern. From there in 1850 Alfred Nobel set out on a 2-year tour of western Europe and the United States, seeking ideas and contacts in engineering. Cancellation of munitions contracts after the Crimean War crippled the St. Petersburg concern, and Nobel's father was again impoverished.

Alfred Nobel remained in Russia when his father returned to Stockholm in 1858. Both were attempting to tame the violent explosive liquid nitroglycerin. In 1863 Alfred rejoined his father, and in that year he succeeded in exploding nitroglycerin at will by initiating the detonation with a gunpowder charge. In 1865 he introduced the mercury fulminate detonator, the key to all the later high explosives. Nobel patented his invention and set about exploiting it. Works for the manufacture of nitroglycerin were established near Stockholm and Hamburg, and the explosive oil was shipped the world over. In 1866 Nobel visited the United States and erected factories in New York and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, in Europe the Nobel companies faced mounting criticism arising from numerous accidental nitroglycerin explosions in transit or storage. Nobel had foreseen these difficulties and as early as 1864 had tried absorbing the sensitive liquid in porous solids, including kieselguhr. This material reduced the blasting efficiency by a quarter, but the resulting explosive was solid, plastic, and relatively insensitive to physical or thermal shock. This was dynamite, patented in 1867. The new invention was vigorously exploited and a worldwide industry established. In 1875 came gelignite, a mixture of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin; and in 1887 ballistite, similar to gelignite, was produced in response to the military demand for a smokeless, slow-burning projectile propellant. This was Nobel's last major invention, but throughout his life he improved on them all in detail, patented them, and left them to his companies, with which he had as little formal contact as possible.

From 1865 to 1873 Nobel lived in Hamburg and then in Paris until 1891, when the Italian military adoption of ballistite made him unpopular there. He moved to San Remo, Italy, where he died on Dec. 10, 1896. He was truly international, traveling ceaselessly. For all his achievements, he was a reserved and shy man who hated personal publicity.

Nobel's will directed that the bulk of his estate, above 33 million kronor, should endow annual prizes for those who, in the preceding year, had most benefited mankind in five specified subjects: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, or peace. His will was proved within 4 years and the Nobel Foundation created. A Nobel Prize is one of the highest honors that an individual can receive.


Further Reading on Alfred Bernhard Nobel

The basic biography of Nobel is J. Henrik Schück and R. Sohlman, The Life of Alfred Nobel (trans. 1929). Perhaps the best of the many shorter works is E. Bergengren, Alfred Nobel: The Man and His Work (1962). Other biographies include Michael Evlanoff, Nobel-Prize Donor: Inventor of Dynamite, Advocate of Peace (1943), and Michael and Marjorie Fluor Evlanoff, Alfred Nobel: The Loneliest Millionaire (1969). The work of the Nobel Foundation is described in J. Henrik Schück, ed., Nobel: The Man and His Prizes (2d rev. ed. 1962).