A Bit of History: The Life of Alfred Nobel

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The Life of Alfred Nobel

Early Years

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833 between Immanuel Nobel and Andriette Nobel. His father, Immanuel Nobel was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and buildings in Stockholm. His mother, Andriette Ahsell Nobel came from a wealthy family.

On the same year that Alfred Nobel was born, his father was forced to bankruptcy due to misfortune in his construction work (he lost some barges of construction materials). Immanuel left Stockholm on 1937 for Finland and Russia. To help the family, Andriette started a grocery which earns her a modest income. In St. Petersburg, Russia, Immanuel Nobel’s new enterprise (a mechanical workshop) became successful. His workshop provided equipment for the Russian army – even convincing the Tsar and his generals that his navy mines could stop threats from enemy naval ships.

The success of his ventures allowed Immanuel Nobel to give his sons first class education by private teachers. This training included natural sciences, Languages, and Literatures. By the age of 17 Alfred Nobel was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics. But his father disliked Alfred’s liking for poetry and even found his son to be rather introverted – he wanted his sons to join his enterprise as engineers.

Nitroglycerine

To broaden his horizons (as well as change Alfred’s passion and introverted nature), Immanuel sent his son abroad for further training in chemical engineering. During a two-year period, Alfred Novel visited Sweden, Germany, France and the United States. In Paris, the city he came to like best, he worked in the private laboratory of Professor T. J. Pelouze, a famous chemist. There he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine, a highly explosive liquid.

Producing nitroglycerine requires the mixture of glycerin and sulfuric and nitric acids. The mixture produces explosive power that greatly surpasses the gunpowder. But the explosive and unpredictable nature of nitroglycerine is so dangerous that people of that time could not find a practical use for it.

Alfred Nobel became very interested in this dangerous mixture and wanted to find ways where it could safely be used in construction work. He tried different methods and realized that he needed some sort of controlled detonation mechanism to make it possible. To help in this endeavour, he went to the United States to visit the Swedish-American engineer who developed the screw propeller for ships --- John Ericsson. Unfortunately, this visit was cut short, as in 1852, Alfred Nobel was asked to return home so that he could help in the family’s booming enterprise. But Alfred did not stop in his experiment on nitroglycerine, and was even helped by his father who also saw the potential of the dangerous compound.

Another change happened in the Nobel family’s enterprise after the war ended. Because there’s no more need for the marine mines manufactured by the Immanuel Nobel’s factories after the war ended, the enterprise he built declined and subsequently pushed to bankruptcy. Immanuel, along with his two sons, Alfred and Emil, left St. Petersburg together and returned to Stockholm. His other two sons, Robert and Ludwig, on the other hand, remained on St. Petersburg. Working together, the family manages to salvage their enterprise with some difficulties.

Explosion in the Laboratory in Stockholm

After his return to Sweden in 1863, Alfred Nobel concentrated most of his time on the development of nitroglycerine as an explosive. Unfortunately, another tragedy struck; in 1864, his brother, Emil, along with other people was killed after a huge explosion caused by one of experiment. This explosion convinced the authority of Stockholm that nitroglycerine is a very dangerous compound and forbade further experimentation within the city’s limits. Left with no choice, Alfred was forced to move his experimentation on a barge anchored on Lake Malaren. Yet this event did not discourage Alfred, and on 1864 begun the mass production of nitroglycerine.

The Invention of Dynamite

Alfred Nobel wanted to make the handling of nitroglycerine safer and experimented on different kind of additives. One of those experiment made a satisfactory result, and Alfred found out that mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr could turn the liquid into paste --- allowing it to be shaped into rods of a size and form suitable for insertion into drilling holes. In 1867, Alfred Nobel patented this material and named it dynamite. To allow safe detonation of dynamite rods, Alfred also invented a detonator (blasting cap), which can be ignited by lighting a fuse. His inventions (the dynamite and blasting cap) were made at the same time as the diamond drilling crown and pneumatic drill came into general use.

Together these inventions drastically reduced the cost of blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work.

Success of the Dynamite and His Later Life

Alfred Nobel passion for the dangerous mixture did not fail him as the market for dynamite rapidly grew. Alfred also proved to be a very skilled entrepreneur and businessman. In 1865, Alfred’s factory in Krummel, near Hamburg, Germany, was exporting nitroglycerine explosives in countries in Europe, America, and Australia. Over the years, he builds factories in some 90 different places in 20 countries.

Though Alfred Nobel lived mostly in Paris, he’s constantly travelling --- this along with his business lives very little time for his private life. Feeling like an old man at 43, Alfred did something unexpected, he advertised in a newspaper that a “Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.”

This advertisement attracted the attention of lots of women who believed that they are qualified for the position. After a thorough screening, the most qualified applicant turned out to be an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Kinsky. Unfortunately, the relationship did not work, and after working for Alfred for a short time, she decided to return to Austria and marry Count Arthur von Suttner. Despite of this, there were no hard feelings between the two and they remained good friends and kept writing letters with each other for decades.

The Arms Race and Nobel’s Peace Prize

The arms race between powerful nations grew increasingly over the years, and Alfred Nobel in his later years grew concern about it. His interactions with his good friend, Bertha von Suttner also have profound effect on him as Bertha’s view of the arms race grew critical --- writing a book, titled, “Lay Down Your Arms” and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. Before his death, Alfred wrote a final will which included a Prize for persons or organizations that promoted peace.

On December 10, 1896, Alfred Nobel died in San Remo, Italy. When his will was opened, the people were surprised when they found out that his fortune was to be used for Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. The executors of his will were (the two young engineers), Ragnar Sohlman and Robert Lilljequist. To see that his will is followed, they set up the Nobel Foundation as an organization to take care of the financial assets left by Nobel for this purpose and to coordinate the work of the Prize-Awarding Institutions. Of course, this is not without difficulties, as his will was contested by his relatives and questioned by authorities in various countries; but at the end, the will was honored and the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize became a reality. Several years after his death, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded by the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) in 1905 to his good friend, Bertha von Suttner.

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