Alfred Nobel


Alfred Nobel : biography

21 October 1833 – 10 December 1896

The family factory produced armaments for the Crimean War (1853–1856); but, had difficulty switching back to regular domestic production when the fighting ended and they filed for bankruptcy. In 1859, Nobel’s father left his factory in the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831–1888), who greatly improved the business. Nobel and his parents returned to Sweden from Russia and Nobel devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the safe manufacture and use of nitroglycerine (discovered in 1847 by Ascanio Sobrero, one of his fellow students under Théophile-Jules Pelouze at the University of Turin). Nobel invented a detonator in 1863; and, in 1865, he designed the blasting cap.

On 3 September 1864, a shed, used for the preparation of nitroglycerin, exploded at the factory in Heleneborg Stockholm, killing five people, including Nobel’s younger brother Emil. Dogged by more minor accidents but unfazed, Nobel went on to build further factories, focusing on improving the stability of the explosives he was developing. Nobel invented dynamite in 1867, a substance easier and safer to handle than the more unstable nitroglycerin. Dynamite was patented in the US and the UK and was used extensively in mining and the building of transport networks internationally. In 1875 Nobel invented gelignite, more stable and powerful than dynamite, and in 1887 patented ballistite, a forerunner of cordite.

Nobel was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1884, the same institution that would later select laureates for two of the Nobel prizes, and he received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in 1893.

Nobel’s brothers Ludvig and Robert exploited oilfields along the Caspian Sea and became hugely rich in their own right. Nobel invested in these and amassed great wealth through the development of these new oil regions. During his life Nobel issued 350 patents internationally and by his death had established 90 armaments factories, despite his belief in pacifism.

In 1888, the death of his brother Ludvig caused several newspapers to publish obituaries of Alfred in error. A French obituary stated "Le marchand de la mort est mort" ("The merchant of death is dead"). Britannica, Alfred Nobel

In 1891, following the death of his mother and his brother Ludvig and the end of a long standing relationship, Nobel moved from Paris to San Remo, Italy. Suffering from angina, Nobel died at home, of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1896. Unbeknownst to his family, friends or colleagues, he had left most of his wealth in trust, in order to fund the awards that would become known as the Nobel Prizes. He is buried in Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.

Personal life

Nobel travelled for much of his business life, maintaining companies in various countries in Europe and North America and keeping a permanent home in Paris from 1873 to 1891. He remained a solitary character, given to periods of depression. Though Nobel remained unmarried, his biographers note that he had at least three loves. Nobel’s first love was in Russia with a girl named Alexandra, who rejected his proposal. In 1876 Austro-Bohemian Countess Bertha Kinsky became Alfred Nobel’s secretary. But after only a brief stay she left him to marry her previous lover, Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner. Though her personal contact with Alfred Nobel had been brief, she corresponded with him until his death in 1896, and it is believed that she was a major influence in his decision to include a peace prize among those prizes provided in his will. Bertha von Suttner was awarded the 1905 Nobel Peace prize, ‘for her sincere peace activities’.

Nobel’s third and longest-lasting relationship was with Sofie Hess who was from Vienna, whom he met in 1876. The liaison lasted for 18 years. After his death, according to his biographers Evlanoff, Fluor, and Fant, Nobel’s letters were locked within the Nobel Institute in Stockholm. They were released only in 1955, to be included with the biographical data of Nobel.