Alfred Nobel

The Dynamite Man

Alfred Nobel didn't just invent dynamite, he capitalized on his idea by founding 16 explosives plants in 14 countries. When competition arose among them, he merged them. Two holding companies--the first of their kind--were formed, coordinating everything from production to sales to acquisitions. Historian Ragnhild Lundstrom credits Nobel's creative fusion of his businesses as a template for how to organize a global empire. Dynamite had an enormous impact on the world, both for good--facilitating the construction of tunnels, railroads and canals--and for ill--high-explosive shells dramatically increases warfare's carnage. But perhaps Nobel's most enduring legacy is the annual prizes given in his name for peace, physics, literature, chemistry, economics and medicine.

Early Days

Born in Stockholm, Alfred Nobel was the fourth son of Immanuel Nobel, an inventor and engineer, and Andriette Ahlsell Nobel. Through his father, Alfred Nobel was a descendant of the Swedish scientist Olaus Rudbeck (1630-1702), and the boy, in his turn, was interested in engineering, and especially explosives, from a young age, learning the basic principles from his father.

Following various business failures, Nobel's father moved to Saint Petersburg in 1837 and grew successful there as a manufacturer of machine tools and explosives. He invented modern plywood and started a "torpedo" works. In 1842, the family joined him in the city. Now prosperous, his parents were able to send Nobel to private tutors and the boy excelled in his studies, particularly in chemistry and languages, achieving fluency in English, French, German and Russian. For 18 months, during 1841–1842, Nobel went to the only school he ever attended as a child, the Jacobs Apologistic School in Stockholm.

In 1859, Nobel's father left his factory in the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831–1888), who greatly improved the business. Nobel and his parents returned to Sweden from Russia and Nobel devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the safe manufacture and use of nitroglycerine (discovered in 1847 by Ascanio Sobrero, one of his fellow students at the University of Turin). Nobel invented a detonator in 1863 and in 1865 he designed the blasting cap.

The Invention

On 3 September 1864 a shed, used for the preparation of nitroglycerin, exploded at the factory in Heleneborg Stockholm, killing five people, including Nobel's younger brother Emil. Dogged by more minor accidents but unfazed, Nobel went on to build further factories, focusing on improving the stability of the explosives he was developing. Nobel invented dynamite in 1867, a substance easier and safer to handle than the more unstable nitroglycerin. Dynamite was patented in the US and the UK and was used extensively in mining and the building of transport networks internationally.

In 1875 Nobel invented gelignite, more stable and powerful than dynamite. Gelignite, also known as blasting gelatin or simply jelly, is an explosive material consisting of collodion-cotton (a type of nitrocellulose or gun cotton) dissolved in either nitroglycerine or nitroglycol and mixed with wood pulp and saltpetre (sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate). In 1887 patented ballistite, which is a smokeless propellant made from two high explosives, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine.

Nobel was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1884, the same institution that would later select laureates for two of the Nobel prizes, and he received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in 1893.

Nobel's brothers Ludvig and Robert exploited oilfields along the Caspian Sea and became hugely rich in their own right. Nobel invested in these and amassed great wealth through the development of these new oil regions. During his life Nobel issued 350 patents internationally and by his death had established 90 armaments factories, despite his belief in pacifism.

In 1891, following the death of his mother and his brother Ludvig and the end of a long standing relationship, Nobel moved from Paris to San Remo, Italy. Suffering from angina, Nobel died at home, of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1896. Unbeknownst to his family, friends or colleagues, he had left most of his wealth in trust, in order to fund the awards that would become known as the Nobel Prizes. He is buried in Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.


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