Alfred Bernhard Nobel


Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born on Oct. 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden, and was the fourth son of Immanuel and Caroline Nobel. Immanuel was an inventor and engineer who had married Caroline Andrietta Ahlsell in 1827. The couple had eight children, of whom only Alfred and three brothers reached adulthood. Alfred was prone to illness as a child, but he enjoyed a close relationship with his mother and displayed a lively intellectual curiosity from an early age. He was interested in explosives, and he learned the fundamentals of engineering from his father. Immanuel, meanwhile, had failed at various business ventures until moving in 1837 to St. Petersburg in Russia, where he prospered as a manufacturer of explosive mines and machine tools. The Nobel family left Stockholm in 1842 to join the father in St. Petersburg. Alfred\'s newly prosperous parents were now able to send him to private tutors, and he proved to be an eager pupil. He was a competent chemist by age 16 and was fluent in English, French, German, and Russian, as well as Swedish.


Alfred Nobel left Russia in 1850 to spend a year in Paris studying chemistry and then spent four years in the United States working under the direction of John Ericsson, the builder of the ironclad warship Monitor. Upon his return to St. Petersburg, Nobel worked in his father\'s factory, which made military equipment during the Crimean War. After the war ended in 1856, the company had difficulty switching to the peacetime production of steamboat machinery, and it went bankrupt in 1859.


Alfred and his parents returned to Sweden, while his brothers Robert and Ludvig stayed behind in Russia to salvage what was left of the family business. Alfred soon began experimenting with explosives in a small laboratory on his father\'s estate. At the time, the only dependable explosive for use in mines was black powder, a form of gunpowder. A recently discovered liquid compound, nitroglycerin, was a much more powerful explosive, but it was so volatile that it could not be handled with any degree of safety. Nevertheless, Nobel in 1862 built a small factory to manufacture nitroglycerin, and at the same time he undertook research in the hope of finding a safe way to control the explosive\'s detonation. In 1863 he invented a practical detonator consisting of a wooden plug inserted into a larger charge of nitroglycerin held in a metal container; the explosion of the plug\'s small charge of black powder serves to detonate the much more powerful charge of liquid nitroglycerin. This detonator marked the beginning of Nobel\'s reputation as an inventor as well as the fortune he was to acquire as a maker of explosives. In 1865 Nobel invented an improved detonator called a blasting cap; it consisted of a small metal cap containing a charge of mercury fulminate that can be exploded by either shock or moderate heat. The invention of the blasting cap inaugurated the modern use of high explosives.


Nitroglycerin itself, however, remained difficult to transport and extremely dangerous to handle. So dangerous, in fact, that Nobel\'s nitroglycerin factory blew up in 1864, killing his younger brother Emil and several other people. Undaunted by this tragic accident, Nobel built several factories to manufacture nitroglycerin for use in concert with his blasting caps. These factories were as safe as the knowledge of the time allowed, but accidental explosions still occasionally occurred. Nobel\'s second important invention was that of dynamite in 1867. By chance, he discovered that nitroglycerin was absorbed to dryness by kieselguhr, a porous siliceous earth, and the resulting mixture was much safer to use and easier to handle than nitroglycerin alone. Nobel named the new product dynamite ( from Greek dynamis, "power") and was granted patents for it in Great Britain (1867) and the United States (1868). Dynamite established Nobel\'s fame worldwide and was soon put to use in blasting tunnels, cutting canals, and building railways and roads.


Alfred Nobel, portrait by Emil Österman, 1915; in the Nobel Foundation, Stockholm


Ann Ronan Picture Library/Image Select


In the 1870s and \'80s Nobel built a network of factories throughout Europe to manufacture dynamite, and he formed a web of corporations to produce and market his explosives. He also continued to experiment in search of better ones, and in 1875 he invented