Nobel, Alfred

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NOBEL, ALFRED (1833–1896), Swedish humanitarian, chemist, and inventor.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel's early childhood was characterized by poverty and relatively difficult circumstances. His father, Immanuel Nobel (1801–1872), himself an inventor and engineer, went into bankruptcy the same year Alfred was born, due partly to a fire that destroyed much of the family's resources. Some years later, the elder Nobel decided to leave Sweden, moving first to Finland and then later to Russia. In St. Petersburg, he attempted to reestablish his business. His wife, Andrietta Nobel (née Ahlsell), Alfred's brothers, and Alfred remained in Stockholm. In 1841–1842, young Alfred spent his first and only year in school at the Jacobs Apologistic School in Stockholm. In 1842, the family was reunited in St. Petersburg. Business began to go better, and the sons were given private instruction in the home. The family's increasing wealth made it possible to send Alfred abroad for studies. In the early 1850s, he spent a couple of years in the United States, where he met the Swedish inventor John Ericsson (1803–1899). Nobel spent the following years in part on travels. He studied chemistry in Paris and journeyed to other parts of Europe.

Nobel was granted his first patent in 1857 in St. Petersburg, for a gas meter. At that time, he was becoming increasingly involved in his father's factory. Business began to decline, and Alfred was trusted with the task of seeking financial support in London and Paris. The trip was a failure, and in 1859 his father gave up and moved home to Sweden, together with Andrietta and their youngest son, Emil (1843–1864). Alfred and his two older brothers, Robert and Ludvig, continued the business in St. Petersburg for several more years. More and more, they focused their work on the development and production of explosives. In the years 1863 and 1864, Alfred Nobel was granted his first patents for the use of nitroglycerin in combination with black powder. The 1863 patent was for mixtures of nitroglycerin and black powder, and the 1864 patent described the introduction of a detonator—a very important invention in the development of effective explosives. Nobel continued to refine his detonator, or blasting cap, which consisted of a copper casing filled with a charge of mercury fulminate.

In 1863, Nobel moved back to Stockholm where he, his father, and Emil began to manufacture nitroglycerin and to market this new explosive to the mining industry. The business grew, but in 1864 catastrophe struck. The small shed in Stockholm where the nitroglycerin was prepared exploded, and Emil Nobel and four other persons were killed. Despite this, just a few months later Alfred Nobel succeeded in establishing a corporation in Stockholm named Nitroglycerin AB. This new company assumed his patents and continued the manufacture of nitroglycerin, first on a barge in the vicinity of Stockholm, and from March 1865 onward at Nobel's first true factory, at Vinterviken just outside Stockholm. Later that same year, he established another factory at Krümmel outside Hamburg. Nobel's enterprise now began to grow rapidly, but a series of accidents followed. Nobel worked hard to find a solution to these safety problems, and in 1867 he patented dynamite, a mixture of nitroglycerin and kieselghur that was much safer than pure nitroglycerin. In 1875, he further improved his invention with the patent for gelatin dynamite. In 1888–1889, Nobel patented his last truly important invention, ballastite, or smokeless powder. Of all of Nobel's more than 300 patents, ballastite became one of the most economically profitable.

Nobel established companies in several countries in Europe and in the United States. Throughout his adult life, he traveled constantly between his different places of business but maintained a permanent home in Paris. He lived there from 1873 to 1891, and had a laboratory in his home, as well as one in Sevran on the outskirts of Paris. Nobel never had a real family of his own. He was very close to his mother, and always traveled home to celebrate her birthday with extravagant presents. For eighteen years, he also had an important relationship with Sofie Hess, an Austrian woman whom he had met in 1876. Although he rented an apartment for her in Paris, they never officially appeared as a couple in public.

For Nobel, the late 1880s and early 1890s were marked by misfortune. His mother died in 1889, his brother Ludvig died in 1888, his relationship with Hess came to an end, and he was drawn into several legal proceedings, including one with the French government, which closed his laboratory. In 1891, Nobel left Paris and moved to San Remo on the Italian Riviera. There he built a new laboratory and began the last creative period of his life. During this time, he began to think about a prize for beneficial contributions to humanity. His will was kept secret until his death, known only by those who witnessed its signing in November 1895. It caused great excitement when its contents were made public following his death on 10 December 1896. Through the devoted work of one of Nobel's closest colleagues, Ragnar Sohlman (1870–1948), the Nobel Foundation was established, and the first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901.

Nobel's posthumous letters give witness to his sense of humor. On the occasions he was asked to provide autobiographical data, his answers were brief and jocular. When his brother Ludwig was writing a biography, Alfred wrote the following about himself: "Alfred Nobel—pathetic, half alive, should have been strangled by a humanitarian doctor when he made his screeching entrance into the world. Greatest merits: Keeps his nails clean and is never a burden to anyone. Greatest fault: Lacks family, cheerful spirits and a strong stomach. Greatest and only petition: Not to be buried alive. Greatest sin: Does not worship Mammon. Important events in his life: None."

See alsoScience and Technology.


Bergengren, Erik. Alfred Nobel: The Man and His Work. Translated by Alan Blair. London, 1962.

Fant, Kenne. Alfred Bernhard Nobel. Stockholm, 1991.

Lindqvist, Svante. A Tribute to the Memory of Alfred Nobel: Inventor, Entrepreneur and Industrialist (1833–1896). Stockholm, 2001.

Schück, Henrik, and Ragnar Solman. Alfred Nobel och hans släkt. Uppsala, 1926.

Solman, Ragnar. The Legacy of Alfred Nobel: The Story Behind the Nobel Prizes. Translated by Elspeth Harley Schubert. London, 1983.

Olov Amelin