Biography of Alfred Nobel, Inventor of Dynamite

Illustration of Alfred Nobel in his laboratory in 1930.
Vintage illustration of Alfred Nobel in his laboratory, working on an experiment; screen print created circa 1930.

GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

Alfred Nobel (October 21, 1833–December 10, 1896) was a Swedish chemist, engineer, businessman, and philanthropist best remembered for inventing dynamite. Paradoxically, Nobel spent most of his adult life creating ever more powerful explosives, while writing poetry and drama, and advocating for world peace. After reading a prematurely written obituary condemning him for profiting from the sale of arms and munitions, Nobel bequeathed his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes for peace, chemistry, physics, medicine, and literature.

Fast Facts: Alfred Nobel

  • Known For: Inventor of dynamite and benefactor of the Nobel Prize
  • Born: October 21, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden
  • Parents: Immanuel Nobel and Caroline Andrietta Ahlsell
  • Died: December 10, 1896 in San Remo, Italy
  • Education: Private tutors
  • Patents: U.S. patent number 78,317 for “Improved Explosive Compound.”
  • Awards: Elected to Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1884
  • Notable Quote: “Good wishes alone will not ensure peace.”

Early Life

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden, one of eight children born to Immanuel Nobel and Caroline Andrietta Ahlsell. The same year Nobel was born, his father, an inventor and engineer, went bankrupt due to financial misfortune and a fire that destroyed much of his work. These hardships left the family in poverty, with only Alfred and his three brothers surviving past childhood. Though prone to illness, the young Nobel showed an interest in explosives, having inherited a passion for technology and engineering from his father, who had graduated from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Nobel was also a descendant of the 17th-century Swedish scientist, Olaus Rudbeck.

After failing at various business ventures in Stockholm, Immanuel Nobel moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1837, where he established himself as a successful mechanical engineer providing equipment for the Russian Army. His work included torpedoes and explosive mines, which would detonate when a ship hit them. These mines worked by using a small explosion to set off bigger ones, an insight which would later prove helpful to his son, Alfred, in his invention of dynamite.

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel, aged 20. Artist: Anonymous. Heritage Images / Getty Images

In 1842, Alfred and the rest of the Nobel family joined Immanuel in St. Petersburg. Now prosperous, Nobel’s parents were able to send him to the finest private tutors who taught him the natural sciences, languages, and literature. By age 16, he had mastered chemistry and was fluent in English, French, German, and Russian as well as Swedish.

Nobel’s Path to Dynamite and Wealth

One of Nobel’s tutors was the accomplished Russian organic chemist Nikolai Zinin, who first told him about nitroglycerine, the explosive chemical in dynamite. Though Nobel was interested in poetry and literature, his father wanted him to become an engineer, and in 1850, he sent him to Paris to study chemical engineering.

Though he never obtained a degree or attended the university, Nobel worked in the Royal College of Chemistry laboratory of Professor Jules Pélouze. It was there that Nobel was introduced to Professor Pélouze’s assistant, Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who had invented nitroglycerin in 1847. Though the explosive power of the chemical was much greater than that of gunpowder, it tended to explode unpredictably when subjected to heat or pressure and could not be handled with any degree of safety. As a result, it was rarely used outside the laboratory.

His experiences with Pélouze and Sobrero in Paris inspired Nobel to look for a way to make nitroglycerin a safe and commercially usable explosive. In 1851, at age 18, Nobel spent a year in the United States studying and working under Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, designer of the American Civil War ironclad warship USS Monitor.

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel portrait. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Advances With Nitroglycerine

In 1852, Nobel returned to Russia to work in his father’s St. Petersburg business, which had flourished through its sales to the Russian Army. However, when the Crimean War ended in 1856, the army canceled its orders, leading Nobel and his father Immanuel to look for new products to sell.

Nobel and his father had heard of nitroglycerine from Professor Zinin, who had shown it to them 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. His brothers soon focused on rebuilding the family business, eventually turning it into an oil empire called The Brothers Nobel.

The Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company In Baku
The Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company in Baku, Second Half of the 19th cen. Private Collection. Heritage Images / Getty Images

In 1863, Nobel returned to Stockholm and continued working with nitroglycerine. That same year, he invented a practical explosives detonator consisting of a wooden plug inserted into a larger charge of nitroglycerin held in a metal container. Based on his father’s experience in using small explosions to set off larger ones, Nobel’s detonator used a small charge of black powder in the wooden plug, which when detonated, set off the much more powerful charge of liquid nitroglycerin in the metal container. Patented in 1864, Nobel’s detonator established him as an inventor and paved the way to the fortune he was destined to amass as the first mogul of the explosives industry.

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

In 1865, Nobel invented an improved version of his detonator he called the blasting cap. Instead of a wooden plug, his blasting cap consisted of a small metal cap containing a charge of mercury fulminate that could be exploded by either shock or moderate heat. The blasting cap revolutionized the field of explosives and would prove integral to the development of modern explosives.

Nobel’s new blasting techniques garnered significant attention from mining companies and the state railways, which began to use it in their construction work. However, a series of accidental 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.

Dynamite, Gelignite, and Ballistite

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 that allowed the chemical to be shaped and detonated on command. In 1867, Nobel received a British patent for his invention he called “dynamite,” and publicly demonstrated his new explosive for the first time at a quarry in Redhill, Surrey, England. Already thinking of how he might best market his invention, and mindful of nitroglycerine's bad image, Nobel had first considered naming the highly powerful substance “Nobel's Safety Powder,” but settled with dynamite instead, referring to the Greek word for "power" (dynamis). In 1868, Nobel was awarded his better-known United States patent for dynamite referred to as “Improved Explosive Compound.” The same year, he received an honorary award from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for “important inventions for the practical use of mankind.” 

Box containing several sticks of Alfred Nobel’s Extradynamit dynamite
Alfred Nobel's Extradynamit dynaite. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Safer to handle and more stable than nitroglycerin, 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 creating companies and laboratories all over the world, amassing a fortune.

Nobel went on to combine nitroglycerin with other materials to produce even more commercially-successful explosives. In 1876, he was awarded a patent for “gelignite,” a transparent, jelly-like explosive both more stable and powerful than dynamite. Unlike traditional rigid sticks of dynamite, gelignite, or “blasting gelatin,” as Nobel called it, can be molded to fit into pre-bored holes typically used in rock blasting. Soon adopted as the standard explosive for mining, gelignite brought Nobel even greater financial success. A year later, he patented “ballistite,” the forerunner of modern smokeless gunpowder. Though Nobel’s main business was explosives, he also worked on other products, such as synthetic leather and artificial silk.

In 1884, Nobel was honored by being elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and in 1893, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, the oldest university in all of the Nordic countries still in operation today.

Workers at Nobel Explosives Company Limited, Ardeer, Ayrshire, 1884.
Workers at Nobel Explosives Company Limited, Ardeer, Ayrshire, 1884. 2: gate to Danger Department, with searcher on duty. 3: laboratory. 4: stores. 5: preparation of Kieselguhr which was mixed with nitroglycerine to form dynamite. 6: producing nitric acid. From The Illustrated London News, 16 April 1884. Print Collector / Getty Images

Personal Life

Even as Nobel was building his explosives industry fortune, his brothers Ludvig and Robert were becoming wealthy themselves by developing oil fields along the shores of the Caspian Sea. By investing in his brothers’ oil businesses, Nobel obtained even greater wealth. With businesses in Europe and America, Nobel traveled throughout most of his life but maintained a home in Paris from 1873 to 1891. Despite achieving undeniable success in both his inventing and business undertakings, Nobel remained a reclusive individual who suffered through periods of deep depression. True to his lifelong interest in literature, he wrote poems, novels, and plays, few of which were ever published. An agnostic in his youth, Nobel became an atheist in his later life. However, during his years in Paris, Nobel was a practicing Lutheran who regularly attended the Church of Sweden Abroad, led by pastor Nathan Söderblom, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930.

Politically, while Nobel was considered a progressive by his contemporaries, he might have best been described as a classical liberal, perhaps even a Libertarian. He opposed allowing women to vote and often expressed his distrust of democracy and its inherent politics as a mechanism for selecting government leaders. A pacifist at heart, Nobel often expressed a hope that the mere threat of the destructive powers of his explosive inventions would forever end war. However, he remained pessimistic about the willingness and ability of mankind and governments to maintain perpetual peace.

Nobel never married, possibly fearing that romantic relationships might interfere with his first love—inventing. However, at the age of 43, he advertised himself in a newspaper as: “Wealthy, highly educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” An Austrian woman named Bertha Kinsky answered the ad, but two weeks later she returned to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. Despite their brief relationship, Nobel and Bertha von Suttner continued to correspond with one another. Later becoming active in the peace movement, Bertha wrote the famous 1889 book “Lay Down Your Arms.” It is believed Nobel may have tried to justify his inventions to Bertha with the rationale that he could create something so destructive and terrible that it would stop all wars forever.

Laboratorium of Alfred Nobel at his Villa in Sanremo, 1890s
Laboratorium of Alfred Nobel at his Villa in San Remo, 1890s. Found in the collection of Nobelmuseet Stockholm. Artist: Anonymous. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Later Life and Death

After being accused of high treason against France for selling ballistite to Italy in 1891, Nobel moved from Paris to San Remo, Italy. By 1895, he had developed angina pectoris, and died of a stroke on December 10, 1896, at his villa in San Remo, Italy.

By the time of his death at age 63, Nobel had been issued 355 patents and, despite his apparent pacifist beliefs, had established more than 90 explosives and ammunitions factories worldwide.

The reading of Nobel’s will left his family, friends, and the general public in shock when it was disclosed that he had left the bulk of his fortune—31 million Swedish kronor (over 265 million U.S. dollars today)—to create what is now regarded as the most coveted international award, the Nobel Prize.

Legacy, the Nobel Prize

Nobel’s highly controversial will was challenged in court by his disgruntled relatives. It would take his two chosen executors four years to convince all parties that Alfred’s final wishes should be honored. In 1901, the first Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Peace Prize in what is now Oslo, Norway.

Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony - Oslo
A plaque depicting Alfred Nobel adorns the lecturn during The Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony at Oslo City Hall on December 10, 2012 in Oslo, Norway. WireImage / Getty Images

Nobel never explained why he chose to bequeath his fortune to establish his namesake awards. Always a rather reticent character, he remained largely isolated in the days before his death. However, it is possible that a freakish incident in 1888 may have motivated him. In that year, Nobel’s oil industry magnate brother Ludvig had died in Cannes, France. One popular French newspaper reported Ludvig’s death, but confused him with Alfred, printing the glaring headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). Having worked so hard during his life to portray himself as a pacifist at heart, Nobel was outraged to read what might be written about him in his future obituary. He may have created the prizes to avoid being posthumously labeled a warmonger.

There is also evidence that Nobel’s long and close relationship with the noted Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner influenced him to establish the prize awarded for contributions to peace. Indeed, Noble’s will specifically stated that the Peace Prize should be awarded to the person who in the preceding year “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Alfred Nobel.” The Nobel Peace Prize, https://www.nobelpeaceprize.org/History/Alfred-Nobel.
  • Ringertz, Nils. “Alfred Nobel - His Life and Work.” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media. Mon. 9 Dec 2019. https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobel-his-life-and-work/.
  • Frängsmyr, Tore. “Alfred Nobel – Life and Philosophy.” Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1996. https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobel-life-and-philosophy/.
  • Tägil, Sven. “Alfred Nobel’s Thoughts about War and Peace.” The Nobel Prize, 1998. https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobels-thoughts-about-war-and-peace/.
  • “Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize as a false obituary declared him ‘The Merchant of Death’.” The Vintage News, Oct. 14, 2016. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/10/14/alfred-nobel-created-the-nobel-prize-as-a-false-obituary-declared-him-the-merchant-of-death/.
  • 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/.

Updated by Robert Longley