Alfred Bernhard Nobel

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(b. Stockholm, Sweden, 21 October 1833; d. San Remo, Italy, 10 December 1896)


Nobel’s father, Immanuel Nobel the younger, was a builder, industrialist, and inventor; his great-great-great-grandfather, Olof Rudbeck, was one of the most important Swedish scientists of the seventeenth century. His mother was Andrietta Ahlsell.

Nobel attended St. Jakob’s Higher Apologist School in Stockholm in 1841–1842. The family then moved to St. Petersburg, where he and his brothers were tutored privately from 1843 to 1850 by Russian and Swedish tutors. They were also encouraged to be inventive by their energetic father.

After a two-year study trip to Germany, France, Italy, and North America, Nobel had improved his knowledge in chemistry and was an excellent linguist, with a mastery of German, English, French, Swedish, and Russian. During the Crimean War (1853–1856) Nobel worked in St. Petersburg in his father’s firm, which produced large quantities of war matériel. After the war the new Russian government canceled all delivery agreements; Immanuel Nobel had to declare bankruptcy, and he returned to Sweden in 1859.

Immanuel had long experimented with powder-charged mines, and his attention had been drawn by Nikolai Zinin and Yuli Trapp to the explosive substance nitroglycerin. Both he and Alfred worked with it independently, using different methods. In 1862 Immanuel was the first to demonstrate a comparatively simple way of producing nitroglycerin on a factory scale, using Ascano Sobrero’s method with some modifications.

In 1863 Alfred Nobel, back in Sweden, developed his first important invention, the Nobel patent detonator, constructed so that detonation of the liquid nitroglycerin explosive charge was effected by a smaller charge placed in a metal cap charged with detonating mercury (mercury fulminate). The “initial ignition principle,” using a strong shock rather than heating, was thus introduced into the technique of blasting.

In 1865 the world’s first true factory for producing nitroglycerin was put into operation by the Nobel company, Nitroglycerin Ltd., in an isolated area outside Stockholm. Young Alfred Nobel was not only managing director but also works engineer, correspondent, traveling salesman, advertising manager, and treasurer. This responsibility marked the beginning of his life as an inventor and industrialist and led to the establishment of many factories throughout the world and to the development of new production methods. Accidents in factories and in the handling of nitroglycerin made Nobel aware of the danger of fluid nitroglycerin. After a long period of experimentation, in 1867 he patented dynamite in Sweden, England, and the United States. It was an easily handled, solid, and ductile explosive that consisted of nitroglycerin absorbed by kieselguhr, a very porous diatomite. The invention aroused great interest among users of explosives. Nitroglycerin, the fundamental discovery of Sobrero (1847), had been transformed into a useful explosive. A worldwide industry was built up by Alfred Nobel himself.

Guhr dynamite, as it was known, had certain technical weaknesses. Continuing his research, Nobel in 1875 created blasting gelatin, a colloidal solution of nitrocellulose (guncotton) in nitroglycerin which in many respects proved to be an ideal explosive. Its force was somewhat greater than that of pure nitroglycerin, it was less sensitive to shock, and it was strongly resistant to moisture and water. It was called Nobel’s Extra Dynamite, Express Dynamite, Blasting Gelatin, Saxonite, and Gelignite. As early as 1875 it was put into production in most of Nobel’s dynamite factories.

The problem of improving blasting powder had quite early occupied the Nobels. In 1879 Alfred Nobel was working on less smoky military explosive charges for artillery missiles, torpedoes, and ammunition. In 1887 he produced a nearly smokeless blasting powder—Ballistite, or Nobel’s blasting powder—a mixture of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose plus 10 percent camphor, which upon ignition burned with almost mathematical precision in concentric layers.

Nobel’s last discovery in the realm of explosives was progressive smokeless powder (Swedish primary patent no. 7552, in 1896). A further product of Ballistite for special purposes, it was developed in his laboratory at San Remo during the last years of his life.

Nobel’s interests as an inventor were by no means confined to explosives; his later work covered electrochemistry, optics, biology, and physiology. The list of his patents runs to no fewer than 355 in different countries. His pioneer work helped later inventors solve many problems in the manufacture of artificial rubber, leather, and silk, of semiprecious and precious stones from fused alumina, and of other products.

Through his skill as an industrialist and his fundamental patents on explosives, Nobel became a multimillionaire. By his last will and testament, dated Paris, 27 November 1895, he left his total fortune, over 33 million Swedish crowns (over two million pounds sterling), to a foundation that would award prizes “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind“. The prize-awarding institutions are the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (physics, chemistry), the Royal Caroline Medical Institute (medicine, physiology), the Swedish Academy (literature), and a committee of the Norwegian Parliament (peace). The prize for economic sciences is a separate entity established by the Swedish Riksbank.


Nobel’s only writing is On Modern Blasting Agents (Glasgow, 1875).

The three main biographies are Alfred Nobel och hans Släkt (Stockholm, 1926); E. Bergengren, Alfred Nobel, the Man and His Work (London-New York, 1962), with a supp. on the Nobel Institutions and the Nobel prizes by N. K. Stähle: and H. Schück and R. Sohlman. The Life of Alfred Nobel (London, 1929).

Other works to be consulted are The Book of High Explosives (Birmingham, 1908); A. P. Gelder and H. Schlatter, History of the Explosives Industry in America (New York, 1927); The History of Nobel’s Explosives Co. Ltd.and Nobel Industries Ltd. 1871–1926, which is vol.I of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. and Its Founding Companies (Birmingham, 1938); F. D. Miles, A History of Research in the Nobel Division of ICI (Birmingham, 1955); R. Moe, Le Prix Nobel de la paix et l’Institut Nobel norvègien (Oslo, 1932); H. de Mosenthal, “The Inventor of Dynamite“ in Nineteenth Century, no. 260 (Octo.1898), 567–581; H. Schück” et al., Nobel, the Man and His Prizes (Amsterdam, 1962), a discussion of the role of the Nobel prizes in the development of the prize fields during the first sixty years by eminent representatives of the five prize sections, with a biographical sketch of Nobel by H. Schück and a sketch or Nobel and the Nobel Foundation by R. Sohlman; and B. von Suttner, Memoirs (Stuttgarl-Leipzig, 1909).

Torsten Althin

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Nobel, Alfred Bernhard


Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 21, 1833, as the third of four sons to Immanuel and Andriette (Ahlsell) Nobel. That same year, his father, an engineer and builder, went bankrupt when barges full of building materials were lost at sea. In 1837 Immanuel left Stockholm and moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he started manufacturing equipment for the Russian army. His factory flourished, especially with the manufacture and sale of naval mines of his own construction.

Immanuel was eventually able to bring his family to Russia, where his sons were given a private education. Alfred Nobel's interests ranged from literature and poetry to physics and chemistry. Nobel's command of foreign languages was excellent; by the age of seventeen he was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English, and German, which aided him in his future business transactions.

In 1863 Nobel began trying to master the process of the synthesis of nitroglycerine. His first partial success was a mixture of nitroglycerine with black gunpowder, called "blasting oil." The danger of working with such an unstable material was a problem. After an explosion in Nobel's Stockholm factory that claimed five lives, including that of his brother Emil (18431864), the municipal authorities forbade him to carry out further experiments in the town. He then continued his work on a ship anchored on Lake Mälären.

Nobel began to realize that, for handling purposes, nitroglycerine would have to be absorbed in some kind of stabilizing carrier. After many unsuccessful trials using sawdust, charcoal, paper, and brick-dust, he finally succeeded with Kieselguhr, a diatomaceous earth found in Germany. Even when saturated with nitroglycerine, this earth was quite safe to handle, a blasting cap and detonator being required to force it to explode. Originally called "Kieselguhr-dynamite," its name was later abridged to "dynamite" (the Greek dynamis meaning "power"). Nobel was granted a patent for dynamite in England on May 7, 1867, and on September 13 of the same year in Sweden.

In 1868 Nobel and his father were awarded the Letterstedt Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Nobel highly valued this award, which was the only prize he ever received, and which was perhaps the source of his idea for a similar prize he later established.

Nobel, one of the wealthiest men of his time, constantly moved between his factories and his houses equipped with laboratories. He was both an industrialist and an administrator, handling his business without a secretary. As he wrote in a letter: "My home is where I work, and I work everywhere." His prodigious activities had a negative effect on his health, which had been poor since his youth. After 1890 he preferred to stay at his home in San Remo, Italy. By that time he had 350 patents and ninety-three factories in several countries.

On November 27, 1895, Nobel wrote his last will, in which he generously bequeathed his wealth to his relatives and friends. The second part of his will, however, is more famous, for it is here that he established the Nobel Prizes. Nobel's property that was designated for the fund was worth seventy million Swedish crowns, and has continued to grow since then. Nobel Prizes are awarded in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Since 1969 a Nobel Prize, funded by the Swedish Bank, has also been awarded for outstanding achievements in economy.

Nobel died on December 10, 1896, in San Remo. Shortly before his death he wrote: "It sounds like the irony of fate that I should be ordered to take nitroglycerin internally," which had been prescribed to him as a treatment for angina pectoris. The Nobel Foundation, established in accordance with his will, awarded the first Nobel Prizes in 1901.

see also Explosions.

Vladimir Karpenko


Fant, Kenne (1993). Alfred Nobel: A Biography, tr. Marianne Ruuth. New York: Arcade.

Hellberg, Thomas, and Jansson, Lars Magnus (1986). Alfred Nobel. Karlshamn, Sweden: Lagerblads Förlag AB.

Ihde, Aaron J. (1984). Development of Modern Chemistry. New York: Dover.

Roberts, Royston M. (1989). Seredipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. New York: Wiley.

Internet Resources

"Alfred Nobel: Biographical." The Nobel Foundation. Available from <>.

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Alfred Bernhard Nobel

The Swedish chemist Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896) invented dynamite and other explosives, but he is best remembered for the Nobel Prizes, which he endowed with the bulk of his personal fortune.

Alfred Nobel was born Oct. 21, 1833, in Stockholm. His father, impecunious in the Sweden of the 1830s, was more fortunate in Russia and by 1842 had established himself in a St. Petersburg engineering and armaments concern. From there in 1850 Alfred Nobel set out on a 2-year tour of western Europe and the United States, seeking ideas and contacts in engineering. Cancellation of munitions contracts after the Crimean War crippled the St. Petersburg concern, and Nobel's father was again impoverished.

Alfred Nobel remained in Russia when his father returned to Stockholm in 1858. Both were attempting to tame the violent explosive liquid nitroglycerin. In 1863 Alfred rejoined his father, and in that year he succeeded in exploding nitroglycerin at will by initiating the detonation with a gunpowder charge. In 1865 he introduced the mercury fulminate detonator, the key to all the later high explosives. Nobel patented his invention and set about exploiting it. Works for the manufacture of nitroglycerin were established near Stockholm and Hamburg, and the explosive oil was shipped the world over. In 1866 Nobel visited the United States and erected factories in New York and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, in Europe the Nobel companies faced mounting criticism arising from numerous accidental nitroglycerin explosions in transit or storage. Nobel had foreseen these difficulties and as early as 1864 had tried absorbing the sensitive liquid in porous solids, including kieselguhr. This material reduced the blasting efficiency by a quarter, but the resulting explosive was solid, plastic, and relatively insensitive to physical or thermal shock. This was dynamite, patented in 1867. The new invention was vigorously exploited and a worldwide industry established. In 1875 came gelignite, a mixture of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin; and in 1887 ballistite, similar to gelignite, was produced in response to the military demand for a smokeless, slow-burning projectile propellant. This was Nobel's last major invention, but throughout his life he improved on them all in detail, patented them, and left them to his companies, with which he had as little formal contact as possible.

From 1865 to 1873 Nobel lived in Hamburg and then in Paris until 1891, when the Italian military adoption of ballistite made him unpopular there. He moved to San Remo, Italy, where he died on Dec. 10, 1896. He was truly international, traveling ceaselessly. For all his achievements, he was a reserved and shy man who hated personal publicity.

Nobel's will directed that the bulk of his estate, above 33 million kronor, should endow annual prizes for those who, in the preceding year, had most benefited mankind in five specified subjects: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, or peace. His will was proved within 4 years and the Nobel Foundation created. A Nobel Prize is one of the highest honors that an individual can receive.

Further Reading

The basic biography of Nobel is J. Henrik Schück and R. Sohlman, The Life of Alfred Nobel (trans. 1929). Perhaps the best of the many shorter works is E. Bergengren, Alfred Nobel: The Man and His Work (1962). Other biographies include Michael Evlanoff, Nobel-Prize Donor: Inventor of Dynamite, Advocate of Peace (1943), and Michael and Marjorie Fluor Evlanoff, Alfred Nobel: The Loneliest Millionaire (1969). The work of the Nobel Foundation is described in J. Henrik Schück, ed., Nobel: The Man and His Prizes (2d rev. ed. 1962). □

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Alfred Bernhard Nobel


Swedish Chemist, Engineer and Industrialist

As the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel amassed great wealth producing instruments of destruction. He left the majority of his fortune to establishing the Nobel Foundation, among whose prizes is the prestigious award for the promotion of peace.

Nobel's education received an important push when his father found success as a manufacturer of explosive mines and machines tools in St. Petersburg. The family left Stockholm to join his father in Russia, enabling the young Nobel to study under private tutors. Fluent in several languages, Nobel showed great interest in engineering and chemistry. For a year he studied in Paris under the noted chemist Theophile Jules Pelouze (1807-1867); while most regard Christian Schonbein (1799-1868) as the inventor of guncotton, some attribute the honor to Pelouze. Nobel then traveled to the United States and worked for four years under John Ericsson (1803-1889), who built the ironclad warship the Monitor.

Nobel began experimenting with explosives on the family estate in Sweden after his father's Russian business, unable to make a peacetime profit once the Crimean War ended, went bankrupt. At the time, black powder, a form of gunpowder, was the dominant explosive used in mines. Even though Ascanio Sobrero (1812-1888) had recently invented the liquid compound known as nitroglycerin, a much more powerful explosive, it was much too volatile for widespread use. Despite the danger, Nobel's father devised a method for the large-scale production of nitroglycerin and Nobel built a factory for its manufacture. To deal with the problem of nitroglycerin's volatility, Nobel sought to control the detonation of the explosion. His first important invention was a practical detonator for nitroglycerin involving a container of nitroglycerin and a plug containing black powder, the igniting of the less-volatile powder setting off the explosion of the nitroglycerin. Nobel then developed an improved detonator that used a mercury fulminate blasting cap that could be exploded by either shock or moderate heat. These inventions not only marked the beginning of the wealth Nobel was to acquire making explosives, but introduced the modern era of explosives as well.

After the accidental death of a brother and several others at Nobel's nitroglycerin factory, he built several more factories and continued his research into nitroglycerin. He found that a porous clay known as kieselguhr would absorb the nitroglycerin, making its manipulation and transportation much safer. Nobel took the name of this new product from the Greek dynamis meaning "power," calling it dynamite. Nobel's 1867 invention of dynamite, more powerful than gunpowder and relatively safe to use in blasting, brought him a fortune.

Following the invention of dynamite, Nobel continued to research explosives and enlarged his manufacturing interests. In 1875 he invented a more powerful form of dynamite, variously called blasting gelatin, saxonite, gelignite, and Nobel's Extra Dynamite. In 1887 Nobel introduced ballistite, which would become the precursor of another smokeless explosive powder, cordite. (Nobel also invented such nonexplosive products as artificial silk and leather.) In 1894 Nobel bought an ironworks in Bofors, Sweden, which became the basis for the widely known Bofors arms factory.

In great contrast to what the bulk of his career would suggest, Nobel was a devoted humanitarian and philanthropist during his lifetime. In his fiercely contested will, he bequeathed most of his wealth to create the Nobel Foundation, whose awards honor those who have rendered an intellectual service to humanity. The prizes reflect his interest in the areas of chemistry, physics, physiology, and literature. Nobel's inspiration to establish the famous peace prize was most likely influenced by his friendship with the Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner. The Nobel Foundation awarded its first monetary prizes in 1901.


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Alfred Bernhard Nobel


Swedish chemist who invented dynamite and established the Nobel Prize trust. After studying mechanical engineering in Russia and the United States, Nobel was employed at his family's factory in St. Petersburg, where he manufactured military devices. Nobel turned his attention to the development of safe packaging for dangerous chemicals (his brother was killed in an 1864 explosion), and in 1867 successfully cushioned nitroglycerin in organic material to produce dynamite. He also developed ballistite, a smokeless gunpowder. Nobel amassed considerable wealth as a manufacturer of explosives and, upon his death, bequeathed his fortune to the prestigious award foundation that bears his name.

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Nobel, Alfred Bernhard (1833–96) Swedish chemist, engineer and industrialist. He invented dynamite in 1866 and patented a more powerful explosive, gelignite, in 1876. With the fortune he made from the manufacture of explosives, he founded the Nobel Prizes.