Alfred Nobel Biography: Chemist, engineer, inventor, and philanthropist

We remember him for the annual prizes that he gifted to the world, but Alfred Nobel also left us with another legacy –  explosives. He was the inventor of dynamite and its even more deadly incarnation, gelignite. They made him rich beyond his wildest dreams, but also left him with a tortured conscience. In this week’s Biographics, we examine the life of Alfred Nobel.

Early Years

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born on October 21st, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden. He was a sickly child who almost died during the first week of birth. As it was, he was one of just four out of eight children to survive. His illness kept him indoors while his three brothers played outside. Alfred’s father, Immanuel, was an inventor and engineer, but he struggled to realize his ambitions and, as a result, the family struggled to get by. Just three months prior to Alfred’s birth, his father had been forced to declare bankruptcy and shut down his business.

Immanuel was now being chased by creditors. Things became almost unbearable when a fire ravaged the family home. To help make ends meet, the Nobel children were sent out onto the streets to sell matches. Alfred was an extremely pallid, sickly child. He suffered from epileptic convulsions along with a host of gastric diseases and debilitating migraine headaches.

For the first six years of his life, Alfred was schooled by his mother. He proved himself to be a gifted student from the start. By the age of three he was able to read. From that time onward, he was rarely seen without a book in hand. He also had a great memory.

When Alfred was four year old, his father moved to Russia in order to pursue a business venture. Immanuel had managed to get a meeting with the Chairman of the  Czar’s Committee for the Promotion of Industry and Trade. He steered the conversation towards landmines, his area of expertise, and was able to secure an invitation to Turku to meet some influential people.

Alfred Nobel young.jpg
By Unknown[1], Public Domain, Link

Immanuel worked in Turku for two years, where he invented the product we know today as plywood.  He then moved to St. Petersburg. There he was introduced to Czar Nicholas 1st. Seizing the opportunity, Immanuel told the Czar about his plans to develop a submerged explosive mine. Nicholas immediately saw the potential to use the invention to prevent enemy ships from entering into Russian waters.

A Change of Fortune

Things were now looking up for the Nobels. With the money he received from the Russian government as compensation for his development of the submerged explosive mine, Immanuel set up a mechanical workshop and armaments factory. As well as making the new mine, the factory also produced industrial tools and cannon shells.

In 1842, when, Alfred was nine years old, Immanuel sent for his family to join him from Stockholm. The new life of the Nobel’s was vastly different to what they had known in Sweden. Their St. Petersburg house was luxurious in comparison to their old home. Immanuel was now able to hire a tutor for his sons.Unlike his brothers, Alfred was studious  and intellectual. He was also intensely curious about the world around him. He loved the poetry of Percy Shelley, especially those concerned with the subjects of nature and justice. From these readings, he developed a deep desire to stand up to injustice.

Alfred’s other loves were chemistry and languages. By the time he was seventeen, he could speak five languages. His father also recognized in the boy a natural affinity for solving problems, marking Alfred as the most promising of his sons to follow in his inventive footsteps. The boy loved nothing better than to spend his time in his father’s factory, silently taking in everything that his dad was doing. Before long, his father allowed him to handle the chemicals himself.

Alfred’s tutors encouraged his passion for chemistry and literature. At the same time they coaxed him to come out of his shell socially. Largely as a result of his ill health he was a painfully shy and introverted boy. Yet, with the help of his tutors, he began to stretch himself academically in his mid teens. He began participating in debating clubs and started to share his passions with family members. Then, around the age of 15, he had a growth spurt which put him at the height of most of his peers. This went a long way to boost his confidence.

In 1850, Immanuel paid for Alfred to study in Paris. He had already been studying with chemist Nikolai Zinin, and it was chemistry that he pursued in France.

The Nitro Fascination

In Paris, Alfred spent time with Ascanio Sobrero, who had recently invented nitroglycerin. Sobrero was totally opposed to any commercial use of his invention due to its highly unpredictable explosive potential. In fact, in later life he made the following statement about his invention . . .

When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerine explosions, and the terrible havoc that it has wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to being its discoverer.

Sobrero’s aversion to his discovery did not put off young Nobel. In fact, the reverse was true – the substance fascinated Alfred.

Nobel also met a chemist by the name of Jules Pelouze, who was fascinated with nitroglycerin and had a determination to bring it under control.

After a year in France, Alfred went to the United States to pursue his studies. There he worked with Swedish inventor John Ericcson. Ericcson would go on to gain fame as the inventor of ironclad warships used in the civil war as well as the inventor of the screw propellor. Erricson filled Alfred’s mind with dreams of what he could do if he was able to tame nitroglycerin.

 

After a year in Ameica, Alfred returned to St. Petersburg. His family recognized a changed young man. His brother Ludwig recalled . . .

Alfred had grown so that I hardly knew him. He is almost as tall as I, and his voice has become so deep and strong that I didn’t recognize it.

But Alfred did more than change physically. The young man who had left with lots of ideas but little direction now had a goal – to turn nitroglycerin into a commercially usable blasting agent for use in tunnels and to create fear inspiring weapons of war that were so terrible that nations would be deterred from ever going to war.

First, though, Alfred had to help out the family. He worked alongside his brothers in one of his father’s factories. But the physical work proved too much for his weakened body. He was often too sick to work. On one occasion. in 1854, he became so unwell that his father packed him off to the spa town on Franzenbad to recuperate.

By now, Immanuel’s business was flourishing. His submerged explosive mine was in high demand, along with other munitions, to supply the Russian forces fighting in the Crimean War of 1853 through 56. By 1853, Immanuel was employing more than a thousand people in his factories and the Russian government was so pleased with him that they awarded him the Imperial Gold Medal in recognition of his ‘diligence and creative skill in Russian industry’.

AlfredNobel adjusted.jpg
By Gösta Florman (1831–1900) / The Royal Library – Sweden.se credits image to www.imagebank.sweden.se, Gösta Florman / The Royal Library, Public Domain, Link

In between overseeing his manufacturing empire, Immanuel found time to collaborate with Alfred on the nitroglycerine problem. But even, Immanuel, with his vast experience, could not find a safe way to detonate the substance.

The end of the Crimean War in 1856 saw a sharp downturn in business for the Nobel company. Immanuel was forced to change his focus from armaments production to churning out household and industrial implements. But still the business suffered. By 1859, Immanuel found himself facing bankruptcy for the second time. He closed the factory, liquidated his assets and moved with his wife and youngest son, Emil, back to Sweden. Alfred and his two older brother, Ludwig and Robert, stayed on in St. Petersburg.

Twenty-eight year old Ludwig was given the job of consolidating and running the remnant of the Nobel’s Russian operation. He rebranded the company as the Ludwig Nobel Mechanical Factory. Alfred spent about four hours each day helping out with the family business. The rest of the day he worked on his passion to tame nitroglycerine.

Dynamite!

Alfred’s first step was to learn to create nitroglycerin himself. By 1861, he had accomplished that goal. After spending up to 18 hours a day in a small factory building, the first breakthrough came when he discovered how to transport nitroglycerin safely – by first soaking it in coal dust.

Now, suddenly, nitroglycerin was a viable explosive. Engineering companies from all over the world came to the Nobel Company to purchase the product – and the money started rolling in. Alfred’s next challenge was to find a safe way to detonate nitroglycerin.

In September, 1864 tragedy struck the Swedish Nobel company factory. A vat of nitroglycerin had been overheated. In the resulting explosion five people were killed, including Alfred’s younger brother, Emil. Alfred, himself, was working in the building next door, and he suffered minor injuries in the disaster.

Rather than being put off working with nitroglycerin, Alfred threw himself into making the explosive safer. To give up now would be ,in his view, to allow his brother to have died in vain. In 1865, he built a factory in Hamburg, Germany. It so happened that the soil around the Hamburg factory was special – it contained minute particles of fossils. When nitroglycerin was poured onto the soil, it turned it into a doughy consistency. This process, in effect, put the nitroglycerin to sleep. In order to wake it up for detonation purposes, Nobel invented the blasting cap.

Alfred knew that a fuse could not be used directly to detonate nitroglycerin, but that gunpowder could detonate it. A fuse could be used to detonate the gunpowder which would then ignite the nitroglycerin.

By 1867, he had mastered the use of small copper capsules of mercury fulminate, which was ignited by a fuse to detonate nitroglycerin. This blasting cap would wake up the nitroglycerin which was packed in a doughy soil base. Nobel called the combination of nitroglycerin, blasting cap and soil ‘dynamite’.

Nobel patented dynamite and began to put it on the commercial market. It was an immediate success, with engineers from all over the world clamoring to get their hands on it. Virtually overnight, Alfred became rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Fabulous Wealth

We can get an idea of high much money came in by an anecdote, apparently true, concerning his housemaid’s wedding. When Alfred asked her what she would like for a gift, the very astute girl replied,

‘As much as you make in a day’.

The following day, Nobel gave her a check for $100,000.

Nobel Prize.png
By Photograph: Jonathunder
Medal: Erik Lindberg (1873-1966) – Derivative of File:NobelPrize.JPG, Link

Alfred himself never married, though he did have at least three great loves throughout his life. While living in Russia in his early twenties he fell for a Russian girl by the name of Alexandria. Painfully shy, he finally built up the gumption to tell the girl how he felt about her, but his affections were roundly rejected. The rebuff hurt him badly, and for the next twenty years, he refused to let his heart be broken again.

Nobel consciously portrayed himself as a hermit and an eccentric. He once wrote the following about himself . . .

I am a misanthrope and yet utterly benevolent, have more than one screw loose, yet am a super idealist who digests philosophy more efficiently than food.

Even though he had enough money to purchase anything he wanted, Alfred was rather frugal. This may have been a reflection of the extreme poverty that he experienced in his childhood. He had no interest in purchasing such personal tokens of wealth as elegant carriages, clothing or food, but would invest liberally in new estates and business ventures.

Nobel was known to have a temper. He was a man who did not suffer fools with many occasions being recorded when he was rude with people, usually those who worked for him. He was a get to the point type of guy, yet he also had the ability to charm potential investors when the need warranted it.

The Women in His Life

In 1876, Alfred, apparently tired of his life of solitude, placed an advertisement in the newspaper that read as follows . . .

Wealthy, highly educated gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages as secretary and supervisor of household.

After interviewing a number of applicants, Alfred employed a woman by the name of Bertha Kinsky. Thirty three year old Bertha was extremely attractive and Nobel was immediately attracted to her. He was also taken with her obvious intelligence and wit. But Bertha did not return her employer’s affections. In fact, she had a fiancee. After a few months, probably feeling ill at ease with the situation, she resigned as Nobel’s secretary. Still, the two remained  friends and they maintained an active letter correspondence right up until the time of Nobel’s death. Bertya, in fact, became the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

Some weeks after Bertha left his employ, Nobel met a young woman by the name of Sofie Hess. Despite the fact that Alfred was 43 and Sofie was just twenty they entered into a relationship that was to last for eighteen years. Apparently embarrassed by the age gap, Nobel kept the relationship secret. The age difference was not the only thing that seemed to work against the relationship. Sofie was uncouth, uneducated and ill mannered. Their relationship was a toxic one. In 1891, Sofie became pregnant to another man but Alfred held out hope for their relationship until she married the child’s father three years later. Even then, he sent her an annual allowance of 6,000 florins.

International Businessman

Nobel never had any children. Despite his immense wealth, he filled his days with work, often going nonstop for twenty hours. In 1875 he invented gelignite, which proved to be a safer explosive than dynamite.

In the late 1860’s Alfred set up a number of plants across Europe and the United States. In June, 1866, he started the United States Blasting Oil Company, the first nitro company in the US.

He also spent increasing amounts of time and money protecting his patented inventions from fraudsters who tried to make money off his hard work.

Alfred was convinced that his invention of dynamite would ultimately be for the good of mankind, saying that . . .

My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant , whole armes can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide in golden peace.

As history has borne out, his faith in mankind was sadly misplaced.

In 1869, while traveling in France, Nobel met Paul Barbe, a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique. Barbe, who came from an affluent family, was fascinated with Nobel’s dynamite and proposed a partnership. He offered to finance the production of dynamite in France and told Nobel that he wanted to learn how to produce it himself. He had Nobel’s interest, mainly because France was envied in the industry for the state monopoly that it held over explosives production. The two men came to an agreement by which all profits would be split 50:50.

Alfred Nobel (1915).jpg
By Emil Österman (1870-1927) – [1], Public Domain, Link

The French enterprise was a success and had soon expanded to factories in Spain, Switzerland and Italy. In 1868, Alfred set his sights on establishing a dynamite company in England. He considered this to be the prime location, as it would open up the whole British Empire as his new market. He spent several months travelling around Britain’s mining districts looking for suitable factory locations. The best chances for investment came from Scotland. After much negotiation, the British Dynamite Company was founded.

In 1871, Alfred purchased a four storey mansion and estate in Paris. As well as a greenhouse for his prize orchids and stables for his beloved horses, the estate had a private laboratory. For the next decade, Alfred spent the bulk of his time working in this lab, along with his assistant Georges Fehrenbach. It was here that he discovered what he considered to be dynamite 2.0 – gelignite.

Gelignite was not only more stable than dynamite – it caused a greater explosion and was easier to shape. Overall, gelignite was also much safer and easier to handle than dynamite. The new invention was an even greater success than dynamite and it caused even more money to flow into the Nobel coffers.

In 1881, Alfred had grown dissatisfied with the facilities in his Parisa mansion laboratory. He bought another estate, this one located some 15 miles from Paris in the town of Sevran. Here he built a larger and better equipped lab. He based himself at Sevran, but ran into problems with the French authorities when he refused to comply with their new regulations and policies, which he considered to be unnecessarily restrictive. Amazingly, the French government charged him with ‘high crimes and treason’. He was forced to close his new lab in Sevran and left for Italy. The French government forbade him from ever working in their country again.

Prior to his ouster from France, Alfred had been working on his latest invention, ballistite. He continued this work at his new lab in San Remo, Italy. Ballistite was a smokeless propellant that combined nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine. The rights to the new explosive were leased to the Italian government, who began using M1890 Vetterli rifles, which used cartridges that were loaded with ballistite.

A Shocking Realization

Alfred’s brother Ludwig died in 1888. The newspapers, however, reported that it was the far more famous Alfred who had passed away. As a result, Nobel had the rare experience of reading his own obituary. What he read shocked him to the core. Virtually every newspaper that he looked at seemed to glory in his supposed demise. One French headline announced . . .

The Merchant of Death is Dead.

Another report stated . . .

Dr. Alfred Nobel (the mutilator), who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.

Nobel was devastated at the realization that the end result of his life’s work was to be worldwide condemnation. He decided that he had to do something to turn around his reputation in whatever time he had left.

In 1893, Alfred employed a personal assistant by the name of Ragnar Solman and and appointed him as executor of his will. The two men worked diligently on the document over the next two years. Then, on November 27th, 1895, Alfred signed the will at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris. It was a will like no other.. Alfred left 94 percent of his total wealth  – the equivalent of 265 million 2018 dollars – to the awarding of a number of annual prizes to individuals who, according to the will…

during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.

The will spelled out five categories – physics, medicine, chemistry, literature and peace. The peace prize was to to be given to…

The person who has done the most, or the best work, for fraternity between the nations and abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.

Today, there is a sixth category, economics, but this was not added until the end of the 20th century.

Death and a Legacy

Nobel's death mask.jpg
By Hal O’Brien (Hbobrien at en.wikipedia) – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5, Link

In his late 50’s, Nobel’s health issues increasingly caused him problems. His heart was especially weak. In an attempt to self medicate, he began administering doses of nitroglycerin. This quite likely contributed to his deteriorating state. His body finally gave out on December, 10, 1896., following a stroke.

He was 63 years of age. The Nobel Prizes began to be awarded in five years later.

Sources:

Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Peace Prize by Kathy-Jo Wargen and Zachary Pullen

Alfred Nobel: Inventive Thinker by Tristan Boyer Binns

Alfred Nobel; A Biography by Kenne Fant

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