Alfred Nobel

By: Victoria Yates

Alfred Nobel was born on the 21st October 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden to Immanuel and Andriette Nobel. In the same year that Nobel was born his father, a self-taught inventor and building contractor, went broke. When Nobel was four his father moved to Finland and then Russia in an attempt to find work, leaving the family behind. To keep the family going Andriette started a grocery store which provided a modest but steady income.

Immanuel’s work in Russia began to thrive when he secured military orders for his work as a pioneer in arms manufacture, particularly related to naval mines. This work allowed Immanuel, in 1842, to bring his family to Russia where they received a first class private education including science, language (Nobel was fluent in five languages by the time he was 17), and literature.

Nobel’s primary interests were chemistry and physics as well as English literature and poetry - these latter interests were disliked by his father who hoped his sons would grow up to be engineers in his firm. Because of this, and in an attempt to make his son less introverted, Immanuel sent Nobel to Sweden, France, Germany, and the United States over a two year period to learn more about chemical engineering.

Nobel’s favourite was Paris, where he worked with a famous chemist and met the Italian Chemist Ascanio Sobrero who had invented nitroglycerine three years prior. The substance captured Nobel’s imagination, and he attempted to discover a practical application for it in construction type work. In 1852 Nobel was called back to his family’s business in Russia, still thriving from its connections to the Russian Army. He and his father worked together to experiment with nitroglycerine in an attempt to develop safe and controlled procedures for its use.

At the end of the Crimean War Immanuel was again forced into bankruptcy by the change in demand. Along with Nobel and his brother Emil, he returned to Stockholm in 1863. His other two sons remained in Russia and eventually salvaged the family enterprise, expanding into the oil industry and becoming incredibly wealthy as a result.

In Stockholm Nobel continued the work he had begun. The process caused several explosions, one of which killed his brother Emil. The authorities saw this as proof that such experimentation was too dangerous, banning it from being conducted within city limits. Nobel moved his work to a barge anchored in Lake Mälaren.

In 1864 Nobel was able to begin large-scale production of nitroglycerine. His experimentation with additives to make the substance safer led him to create a paste he later termed dynamite.  In order that dynamite rods could be detonated remotely he also developed a blasting cap linked to a fuse. The market for such products expanded rapidly and Nobel, a skilled businessman, formed 90 factories in over 20 countries in the coming years.

Nobel choose to largely live in Paris, a reflection of its earlier impact on him, but remained transient, always traveling to different places, for much of his life. He continued to work in engineering and invention, holding some 355 patents by the end of his life including such diverse things as synthetic rubber and leather. 

At the age of 43 Nobel advertised in a newspaper - "a wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household"[1]. The chosen applicant was Countess Bertha Kinsky who, although leaving shortly after to marry Count Arthur Von Suttner, remained a close friend of Nobel’s. 

Her influence can be seen in her later opposition to the arms trade (on which she wrote a book), which many believe influenced Nobel’s decision in his will to leave a prize for the promotion of peace.

Nobel was however a multifaceted man; very personally interested in progressive ideas relating to peace and social matters, and (despite his father’s attempts) maintaining and pursuing his love of literature throughout his life. 

Nobel died on the 10th of December 1896 in Italy. Upon his death it surprised all to find his will had left money for prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. The executors set about creating the Foundation to coordinate the work and control the finances for these prizes.  The Nobel Foundation has, to date, awarded prizes to 802 individuals and 20 organizations.

Alfred Nobel was a leader through his groundbreaking inventions, outstanding business acumen and in his ideology. The Nobel Prize has gifted the world with an organization that serves as a pinnacle of excellence for leaders in a myriad of disciplines who can receive recognition for their work done in the betterment of society.