In addition to the invention of dynamite and hundreds of patents, Alfred Nobel’s legacy recognises outstanding achievements in a range of scientific and humanitarian disciplines.
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm in October 1833 to Immanuel and Andrietta. Immanuel was an inventor and engineer in his own right, however had been unfortunate in a number of business ventures leading up to Alfred’s birth.
In an attempt to turn his fortunes around, Immanuel moved to St. Petersburg. It was here that he found success as a manufacturer of mine and machine tools for the Tsar. This success paid for Alfred's education, allowing him private tutors. He was a natural and enthusiastic student, able at languages as well as chemistry.
After studying chemistry in Paris and working under John Ericsson making warships in the US, Alfred returned to his father’s factory in St. Petersburg and made military equipment during the Crimean War. Once the war ended he returned to Sweden and began investigating explosives. Nitro-glycerine had recently been discovered but with such a huge degree of instability, it was neither safe nor popular.
Nevertheless, Alfred saw the potential in the liquid and set up a factory to manufacture the explosive, whilst he explored ways in which he could regulate and control the effects. In 1863 he made his first venture into innovation by developing a detonator; using a small amount of a substance similar to gun powder, a charge occurred that caused nitro-glycerine to explode.
This invention began Alfred’s huge growth of wealth and renown as he continued to invent better detonation systems, culminating in his blasting cap. This small cap which contained a mercury compound could be exploded through the use of heat or shock. It was this invention that began the heyday of high explosives.
His most noted chemical achievement was still yet to come. Despite his work, nitro-glycerine was still highly unsafe. Transport of the unstable liquid was dangerous and handling was a very sensitive procedure. That was until Nobel added kieselguhr, a material that caused nitro-glycerine to become dry, that could be shaped into tubes. This was the birth of dynamite. Nobel was swiftly granted patents in the UK and the US and his invention was set to work creating a modern landscape allowing the building of roads, railways, tunnels and canals.
Alfred’s business acumen was as sharp as his scientist’s perception. He had not only the intellect and knowledge to design and create these inventions but had an innate ability to foresee where his inventions would be needed. These inventions and his holdings in his brother’s businesses brought him vast wealth.
In 1893 he turned his eye to the Swedish arms industry and set up a factory in an ironworks in Bofors. Part of the agreed deal was that a mansion in Björkborn would become Alfred’s property. This gave him the opportunity to move back to Sweden for the summers during his final years.
In 1896, at his villa in San Remo, Italy, Alfred Nobel died of a cerebral haemorrhage. This extraordinary man achieved unmatched greatness in his lifetime. At his death, he owned more than 90 factories, held over 350 patents, and was known internationally as an innovator and industrialist.
The Nobel Prize
That is far from the end of the Nobel story. It was after his death that he gave his greatest contribution to not only science but to mankind. Unbeknown to his family, Alfred had drafted a will which dictated that the vast majority of his fortune would be put into trust. The equivalent of around 265 million dollars was left to set up awards honouring women and men, all over the world. The Nobel Prize awards recognise outstanding achievements in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and for work in peace; the most highly regarded international awards achievable.
Words by Gareth Davies
Published October 2014