Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prize
Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden. He was the fourth son of Immanuel and Caroline Nobel, and a direct decedent of Olof Rudbeck, Sweden’s best-known technical genius of the seventeenth century. Alfred attended St. Jakob’s Higher Apologist School in Stockholm starting in 1841. A year later, the family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father manufactured submarine mines and torpedoes for the Russian government. While in Russia, Alfred and his brothers received a first-class education by private tutors. Alfred’s interests were diverse, from physics and chemistry to English literature and poetry. Alfred had a gift for languages and by age 16 he was fluent in English, French, German, Russian and the Swedish languages. The young man wanted to be writer, but his father had other plans for him, like working in the family business.
To expand Alfred’s horizons, in 1850 his father sent him to the United States, Germany, France, and Italy to learn about chemistry and business. In the United States he worked under the direction of the Swedish born inventor John Ericsson. Ericsson was a successful businessman and inventor who would go on to build the ironclad warship, the Monitor, for the Union army during the American Civil War. While in Paris, he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who had recently invented the highly explosive liquid nitroglycerine. By mixing glycerin, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid in the proper ratios, nitroglycerine was produced. Its explosive capability far exceeded that of gunpowder; however, the liquid was unstable and would explode if subjected to heat and pressure.
Alfred returned to Russia to work for his father researching, manufacturing, and selling explosives. The Crimean War raged in Europe and Immanuel Nobel was an important arms supplier to the Russians. At the peak of production, the plant had over one thousand workers. When the war ended, the Russian government had little demand for armaments and Alfred’s father’s explosives business went bankrupt, forcing the family to return to Sweden in 1863. Albert’s two brothers, Robert and Ludvig, remained in St. Petersburg and managed to resurrect the family business. The pair went on to develop the oil industry in Russia, eventually making them extremely wealthy.
Immanuel continued to work with explosives, experimenting with the recently discovered nitroglycerine. Both Alfred and his father also began to work with explosives to refine the manufacturing process so that it could be made industrially. Nobel’s stay in America helped him see the usefulness of the powerful explosive, and that nitroglycerine could be used to blast roads, dig canals, clear mine shafts, and in countless other endeavors, saving the labor of an army of laborers.
Inventor and Entrepreneur
In 1863, Alfred developed his first important invention, the blasting cap. The device was constructed so that the liquid nitroglycerine charge could be safely detonated by using a small black powder charge placed in a wooden plug. His “initial ignition principle,” which used a strong shock rather than heating, came into wide usage in the blasting industry. This marked the beginning of Nobel’s reputation as an inventor and industrialist.
The Nobels set up the world’s first factory for producing nitroglycerine in an isolated area outside Stockholm. Nobel, in his early thirties, wore many hats in the business: managing director, engineer, correspondent, traveling salesman, and anything else that needed to be done. This would prove to be the training ground that would serve him well as he would later establish a string of explosives factories around the world. At the laboratory, he experimented with methods to safely produce the highly explosive nitroglycerine. Though the explosive was effective and relatively safe when handled properly, users often mishandled the explosive and many accidents occurred.
In 1864, a tragic accident occurred that destroyed the factory and killed his younger brother and several others. The Swedish government refused to allow the factory to be rebuilt, and Nobel was treated as a mad scientist by the government. This forced Alfred to search for an explosive that was safer to handle and transport. During that same period, Alfred’s father had a stroke and Alfred took over the family business at age 31.
Discovery of Dynamite
Nobel began to experiment with nitroglycerine on a barge in the middle of Lake Mälaren to keep danger to a minimum. Eventually he was given permission to build a factory on a remote shore of the lake. Alfred was painfully aware of the dangers of manufacturing explosives and put procedures in place to make his plant as safe as possible. To keep his workers from falling asleep on the job, they had to sit on one-legged stools. To limit the damage from an accident, manufacturing was done in small wooden sheds separated by earthen walls, thus only one or two workers would be killed in an accident. During this time, Nobel was searching for a safer form of the explosive, but nothing was working.
In 1866, during the cleanup of a serious accident at his plant in Germany, he noticed that nitroglycerine—when mixed with absorbing material consisting of diatomaceous earth, a chalk-like sedimentary rock—formed a paste-like mixture that made a more stable explosive. No longer would the nitroglycerine explode with the slightest provocation, such as being jostled about, but now the new compound could be handled safely. The mixture could be formed into a paste that could be shaped into rods suitable for insertion into drilling holes. Nobel called the combination “dynamite,” from the Greek word dynamis, meaning “power,” and sticks of dynamite replaced the dangerous free nitroglycerine as a powerful explosive. After a period of experimentation and refinement of his processes, in 1867 he patented dynamite in Sweden, England, and the United States. Over the next twenty years he would establish ninety factories in twenty countries.
Nobel was constantly trying to improve his products in the laboratory, and in 1875 he invented blasting gelatin. This improvement was a colloidal solution of nitrocellulose (guncotton) soaked in nitroglycerine. It had the properties of being a better explosive than pure nitroglycerine, it was less sensitive to shock, and it was resistant to moisture. He called his new invention Extra Dynamite or Gelignite. It was put into production in many of his dynamite factories.
Nobel made further improvements to blasting powder by developing a nearly smokeless military explosive to be used in artillery missiles, torpedoes, and ammunition. The smokeless blasting powder became known as Ballistie, or Nobel’s blasting powder, which was a mixture of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose plus ten percent camphor. Although Nobel held many patents on explosives, competitors were constantly infringing on his patents, forcing him into protracted litigation. Alfred’s inventiveness was not limited to explosives; he also worked on products related to synthetic rubber, leather, artificial silk, optics, and physiology. He had a total of 355 patents in his name by the time of his death.
His extensive travel and long work hours didn’t leave much time for a personal life. At age forty-three he ran an ad in a local newspaper, “Wealthy, highly educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” An Austrian woman, countess Bertha Kinsky, filled the position. Nobel became enchanted with the woman; however, she didn’t return his affection. Within a year she returned to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. The split between Nobel and Kinsky was amicable as the two corresponded for many years. Shortly after Kinsky’s marriage, Nobel began an eighteen-year tumultuous relationship with an Austrian flower salesgirl, Sofie Hess.
Alfred Nobel was a complex man and his personality puzzled those who knew him. He was a lonely recluse and prone to fits of depression. From his youth, he never lost interest in literature, and he continued writing poems, novels, and plays, most of which remain unpublished. He wrote volumes of letters in Swedish, Russian, German, English, and French. Nobel was a pacifist and hoped the destructive powers of his invention would bring an end to war. He wrote, “I should like to be able to create a substance or a machine with such a horrific capacity for mass annihilation that wars would become impossible forever.”
Alfred Nobel died on December 10, 1896, at his villa in San Remo, Italy, of a cerebral hemorrhage. His family, friends, and the world were in for a shock when they read his will.
In his will, nearly his total fortune of thirty-three million Swedish crowns, a very large sum of money, would be used to establish a foundation that would award prizes “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” Nobel called for the establishment of five annual prizes in the areas of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and international peace. The prizes are now considered the most prestigious awards given in each of the respective fields. Nobel named two of his engineers, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, as executors of his estate. Under the direction of the executors, a Nobel Foundation was established in Sweden to administer the prizes. The prizes are presented annually at ceremonies in Stockholm, and in Oslo, Norway, where the peace prize is awarded on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. In 1968, a sixth prize was added in economics, which is funded by the central bank of Sweden.
Historians believe one of the contributing factors that motivated Nobel to establish the Nobel Prize was an incident that occurred in 1888. A French newspaper mistakenly ran the headline, “The Merchant of Death is Dead.” It was Alfred’s brother, Ludvig, who had died. The article upset Alfred, possibly making him pause to reflect on how his name would be remembered.
The first Nobel Prize was awarded to the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen for his discovery of X-rays in 1901. It took five years after Nobel’s death before all the claims against his estate could be settled and the first prize could be awarded. By 2018, the Nobel Prize had been awarded to nearly one thousand recipients. Each of the winners received a gold medal, a diploma, and nearly one million dollars.
Like Nobel, the recipient of the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics, Albert Einstein, was a champion of peace. In a 1945 speech, just a few months after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein reflected on Nobel’s predicament as an inventor of weapons of mass destruction and the moral implications. Regarding Nobel, he said, “He invented an explosive that was stronger than any known before—an exceedingly efficient means of destruction. In order to calm his conscience, he created his Nobel Prizes.” We will never know the true reason Alfred Nobel started the prizes in his name, but possibly as Einstein and others have suggested, he was seeking atonement for the moniker given to him by the French newspaper, “the merchant of death.”
Looking back over the last hundred-plus years since the establishment of the Nobel Prizes, we see that the prizes have inspired great works of research and scientific advancement. Sadly though, the peace prize and the development of weapons of mass destruction have done little to calm mankind’s angry spirit.
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“Alfred Nobel – his life and work.” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. Mon. 8 Apr 2019. <https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobel-his-life-and-work/>