Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden October 21, 1833, into a family with strong roots in the field of engineering. Alfred’s father, Immanuel, applied his engineering talents in the construction business, primarily in bridges and buildings. However, his successful building enterprise went bankrupt when the assets were lost in a shipping incident. Alfred’s father emigrated to Russia to re-establish himself there. He began a mechanical engineering workshop and obtained a contract to supply army equipment and naval mines to the Russian military. This was a lucrative venture in the days of the Crimean War and the family became exceedingly wealthy.
Alfred and his brothers were tutored privately in the humanities and natural sciences by highly educated men, two of whom were chemists. Besides having a disposition towards chemistry and physics, Alfred also discovered that he loved literature and poetry. As well, he realized his talent for languages. By the time he was 17, Alfred was fluent in five languages – Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. Although he was a rather introverted individual, and somewhat melancholic of disposition, his background in the family construction business, his natural abilities in languages and his training in chemistry served him well as he developed a career as a scientist and entrepreneur. For Nobel, it was always important to have a practical application for his pursuits.
Immanuel was not particularly keen on his son’s bent towards literature, and so Alfred was sent to Paris to study with a well known chemist. There he met the Italian student, Sobrero, who had discovered nitroglycerine. However, the liquid was too unstable to be manufactured and stored safely. Drops of nitroglycerine could ignite under the blow of a hammer or under elevated temperatures.
Nobel retained an interest in this material and the challenge it presented to safe handling. He had grown up with the use of gunpowder in construction and in the military. Yet nitroglycerine had the potential to be a more powerful tool. This was, after all, the great era of industrialization when transportation networks were being established. Tunnels and railways were connecting distant European centers. Canals were being built. It was also a time of war when mines, such as his father had provided to the Russians, could be used for defensive purposes on land and against approaching enemy ships.
Nobel left Paris, returning to St. Petersburg and his father’s business. There he furthered his research into ways to package nitroglycerine safely and to detonate it in a controlled way. Business again experienced a downturn – this time because of the end of the war and decreased military needs. Alfred moved back to Stockholm again along with his father and younger brother where they continued to pursue a solution to this unstable liquid. Unfortunately, the younger brother died in an explosion in the factory. Surprisingly, Alfred was not deterred by this event. Within two years, he discovered that mixing the liquid with silica would turn the compound into a paste. This could be rolled into tubes and inserted into drilling holes for rock blasting in the construction business. To control the explosion, he invented a detonator cap with a fuse. In 1867, he patented ‘dynamite’ a term he coined from the Greek word for power. Soon Alfred’s business was booming as this product was five times more effective than the standard gunpowder methods.
Nobel’s discovery, his talent for languages and his keen business sense allowed him to develop factories in 20 nations, making himself a millionaire in the process. By the time of his death in 1896 in Italy, Nobel had a total of 355 patents registered to his name. The most famous of these was dynamite.
However, Nobel was by nature and conviction a pacifist. He was greatly distressed at the use of his discoveries for the purposes of warfare and destruction. Therefore in his will, he left most of his estate for the establishment of monetary awards, now known as the Nobel Prizes.
These prizes are awarded annually to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Prizes are in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Physiology/Medicine and Peace. The first Nobel prize was awarded in 1901.