Biography of Alfred Nobel, Inventor of Dynamite

Illustration of Alfred Nobel in his laboratory in 1930.
Illustration of Alfred Nobel in his laboratory in 1930.

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Alfred Bernhard Nobel (October 21, 1833–December 10, 1896) was a Swedish inventor, chemist, and businessman known for inventing dynamite and establishing the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, Peace, and Literature.

Fast Facts: Alfred Nobel

  • Occupation: Chemist
  • Known For: Inventor of dynamite; established the Nobel Prizes
  • Born: October 21, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden
  • Parents: Immanuel and Karolina Nobel
  • Education: Private teachers in St. Petersburg and lab work in Paris (no formal degree)
  • Died: December 10, 1896 in San Remo, Italy

Early Life

Alfred Nobel was born October 21, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden, one of 8 children born to Immanuel and Andriette Nobel. The same year Nobel was born, his father, a building constructor, went bankrupt due to financial misfortune and a fire that destroyed much of his work.

In 1837, Immanuel left Stockholm for Russia, establishing himself in St. Petersburg as a successful mechanical engineer providing equipment for the Russian Army. Immanuel’s work included explosive mines, which would detonate when a ship hit them. These mines worked by using a small explosion to set off big ones, an insight which would be important to inventing dynamite.

Immanuel’s family joined him in St. Petersburg in 1842. There, Nobel was educated by private teachers, learning the natural sciences, languages, and literature. One of Nobel’s chemistry teachers was Professor Nikolai Zinin, who first told Nobel about nitroglycerine, the explosive chemical in dynamite.

Though Nobel was interested in poetry, his father wanted him to become an engineer and sent him abroad to study chemical engineering. Nobel never obtained a degree or attended a university. However, he worked in the lab of Professor Jules Pélouze in Paris.

Mass Production of Nitroglycerine

In 1847, the Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerine. Though the explosive power of this chemical was much greater than gunpowder’s, it was incredibly difficult to handle and could explode unpredictably. Because of this, people avoided dynamite.

In 1852, Nobel came back to work in his father’s business, which was successful because it worked with the Russian Army. In 1856, however, the Crimean War ended and the army cancelled its orders, leading Nobel and his father to look for new products to sell.

Nobel and his father had heard of nitroglycerine from Professor Zinin, who had shown them nitroglycerine some time at the beginning of the Crimean War. They began working on nitroglycerine together. One idea, for example, was to use nitroglycerine to improve explosives for Immanuel's mines. However, Immanuel was not able to achieve any notable improvement. Nobel, on the other hand, made significant strides with the chemical.

In 1859, Immanuel was facing bankruptcy again, and returned to Sweden with his wife and another of his sons. Meanwhile, Nobel stayed in St. Petersburg with his brothers Ludvig and Robert. However, his brothers soon focused on rebuilding the family business, eventually turning it into an oil empire called The Brothers Nobel.

In 1863, Nobel returned to Stockholm and continued working with nitroglycerine. One year later, he filed a patent for the blasting cap, a detonator that could be ignited by lighting a fuse. This invention revolutionized the field of explosives, and was integral to the development of modern explosives.

Nobel’s new blasting technique garnered significant attention from mining companies and the state railways, which began to use it in their construction work. However, a series of explosions involving the chemical—including one which killed Nobel’s brother Emil—convinced authorities that nitroglycerine was extremely dangerous. The use of nitroglycerine was banned in Stockholm, and Nobel continued to manufacture the chemical on a barge on a lake near the city. Despite the high risk involved in using nitroglycerine, the chemical had become essential to mining and railway construction.

In 1864, Nobel began the mass production of nitroglycerine in Stockholm, founding companies throughout Europe. However, several accidents with nitroglycerine led authorities to introduce regulations restricting the manufacture and transport of explosives.

Invention of Dynamite

Nobel continued looking for ways to make nitroglycerine safer. During his experiments, he found that combining nitroglycerine with kieselguhr (also called diatomaceous earth; mostly made of silica) formed a paste which allowed the chemical to be shaped and detonated on command. He patented this invention in 1867, calling it “dynamite” after the Greek word for power (dynamis).

The demand for Nobel’s dynamite surged. Since the user could control the explosions, it had many applications in construction work, including tunnel blasting and road building. Nobel continued building companies and laboratories all over the world, amassing a fortune. He developed other explosives as well, such as blasting gelatin—which had even more explosive power—and ballistite, a smokeless gunpowder.

Though dynamite was Nobel’s main business, he also worked on other products, such as synthetic leather and artificial silk.

Later Life and Death

At the age of 43, Nobel advertised himself in a newspaper: “Wealthy, highly educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” The Austrian countess Bertha Kinsky answered the call, but two weeks later she returned to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. Nobel and Bertha continued to correspond with one another even as she became increasingly critical of the arms race and he continued to work on explosives. He may have justified his decision to Bertha with the rationale that he could create something so destructive and terrible that it would stop all wars forever.

Alfred Nobel died of a stroke on December 10, 1896 in San Remo, Italy.

The Nobel Prize

After Nobel died in 1896, his will stated that his fortune should be used for prizes in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. (The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, also known as the Nobel Prize in Economics, was established much later, in 1968.) His will was executed by two engineers, who formed the Nobel Foundation to coordinate Nobel’s finances and award the prizes.

Nobel’s choices for scientific prizes may have been influenced by his background in science and invention. The founding of the peace prize may have been influenced by the peace activist Countess Bertha von Suttner, or his guilt for creating a material that was so destructive. After Nobel’s death, Bertha was awarded the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

Sources

  • Jorpes, J. Erik. “Alfred Nobel.” British Medical Journal, 1959, pp. 1–6.
  • Livni, Ephrat. “The Nobel Prize Was Created to Make People Forget Its Inventor's Past.” Quartz, 2 Oct. 2017, qz.com/1092033/nobel-prize-2017-the-inventor-of-the-awards-alfred-nobel-didnt-want-to-be-remembered-for-his-work/.
  • Ringertz, Nils. “Alfred Nobel - His Life and Work.” Nature Reviews - Molecular Cell Biology, vol. 2, 2001, pp. 1–4.