In spite of the publicity surrounding the yearly announcement of the Nobel prizes, many know little about Alfred Nobel, the man who endowed them.
Nobel was a successful Swedish industrialist and inventor, best known for the invention of dynamite. The standard explosive of the day in the construction business was nitroglycerine. However, it had the huge disadvantage of being a particularly unstable liquid. It’s claimed that Alfred Nobel developed dynamite after he noticed that nitroglycerine was less liable to explode spontaneously when soaked up by the clay containers used to transport it. Dynamite was a huge advance, because nitroglycerine caused numerous serious accidents. An explosion at Nobel’s own factory killed his younger brother, Emil.
It was probably this accident that motivated Alfred Nobel to find a way to make nitroglycerine safer to manufacture and use.
Although Nobel became enormously wealthy, his personal life was marked by depression, ill health, and loneliness. He had several heart attacks later in life. He then wrote a letter, “It’s fate that I should be ordered to take nitroglycerine internally for angina.” When he died without wife, children, or immediate family, he made provision for the establishment of the Nobel Prizes, which the Swedish government administer.
So next time you hear about the Nobel Prizes, spare a thought for Alfred, the man who made them possible.