Alfred Nobel: A Man of Noble Thought

Learn how a man who invented an element of destruction built a noble legacy of peace.
Birthplace: Stockholm, Sweden
Industry: Armaments and Weapons
Legacy: Nobel Prize
Success: Global business empire including over 90 factories
Honors: Alfred Nobel Monument in Saint Petersburg

Let’s dive in!

Brian Hadi Attarbashi
Updated on:
Jun 15, 2022
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The Makings of a Noble Man 

Picture a stereotypical business executive. 

He is shrewd.

He is aggressive.

He is big. 

He takes advantage of every opportunity to help his company get money and gain himself, raking in his income as if it was his last. 

The Makings of a Noble Man 

Nobel was not such an industrialist.

Humility was one of Alfred Nobel's least prominent qualities, but it was his best. Rather than running away or giving up, ignoring his wrongs, and seeking comfort through his money, he established the Nobel Prize Foundation to award heroes who have made a positive difference in society. 

To understand and appreciate Alfred Nobel’s legacy, it is essential to understand what drove him to develop dynamite.

Here, we will relive the life of Alfred Nobel, his inventions, and his legacy.

Early Life

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was a Swedish engineer, chemist, and industrialist who invented dynamite and other more powerful explosives and founded the Nobel Prizes. 

So you may ask, when was Alfred Nobel born? 

He was born to Immanuel Nobel and Caroline Andrietta Ahlsell on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden.

Immanuel Nobel and Caroline Andrietta Ahlsell

In 1827, Immanuel, an inventor, and engineer married Caroline, who came from a wealthy family. The couple was blessed with eight children, but only four reached adulthood.

As a child, Alfred was prone to illness. Nobel was often cold and sick, yet he continued to explore the world around him. 

When many youngsters would refuse to do anything, Alfred Nobel kept his life curious despite his ailments. He was close to his mother and displayed a lively intellectual curiosity from a young age.

What was Alfred Nobel interested in that led him to his destiny? He was very much interested in explosives, and he learned the fundamentals of engineering from his father.

Meanwhile, Immanuel had failed in various business ventures and declared bankruptcy. He moved to St. Petersburg in Russia in 1837, where he prospered. 

He established a mechanical workshop that supplied equipment to the Russian army. He persuaded the Tsar and his generals that naval mines could be used to prevent enemy naval ships from threatening the city.

naval mines to the Tsar of Russia

Immanuel Nobel’s naval mines were simple devices comprising submerged wooden casks filled with gunpowder. Anchored beneath the surface of the Gulf of Finland, they effectively deterred the British Royal Navy from moving into St. Petersburg’s firing range during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Immanuel Nobel was also a trailblazer in the manufacture of weapons and the design of steam engines. 

Education

The Nobel Brothers

Successful in his business ventures in the industrial world, Immanuel Nobel was able, in 1842, to bring his family to St. Petersburg. Alfred’s newly prosperous parents could now send him to private tutors, and he proved to be an eager pupil. The training included natural sciences, languages, and literature.

At 16, he was a competent chemist and was fluent in English, French, German, Russian, and Swedish. His primary interests were in chemistry and physics. He also liked English literature and poetry. Having wanted his sons to join the family business as engineers, Alfred's father disliked Alfred's interest in poetry and thought he was rather introverted.

His father sent him abroad for further training in chemical engineering as a way of broadening his horizons. Alfred Nobel spent two years traveling in Sweden, Germany, France, and the United States.

While in the United States, he worked under the direction of John Ericsson, the builder of the ironclad warship Monitor, the Swedish-American engineer who had developed the screw propeller for ships.

In Paris, the city Alfred came to like the best; he worked in the private laboratory of a famous chemist, Professor T. J. Pelouze. There he made the acquaintance of the young Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero, who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine, a highly explosive liquid.

Alfred Nobel became fascinated by nitroglycerine and how it could be used in construction work. He also realized that safety issues needed to be addressed and that he needed to develop a method for controlled nitroglycerine detonation.

FAQs on the influence that shaped Alfred Nobel’s Career Development

1. Where did Alfred Nobel get his interest in technology?

Alfred Nobel learned the basics of engineering from his father.

2. Where does Alfred Nobel meet Ascanio Sobrero?

His father sent him to Paris to spend a year in the Pelouze lab. Here he met Ascanio Sobrero, an Italian chemist who had invented nitroglycerine a few years earlier.

3. Where did Alfred Nobel work with John Ericsson?

While studying chemistry in the United States, he worked for a short time under John Ericsson, who designed the ironclad USS Monitor during the American Civil War.

Early Career

Young Alfred Nobel

In 1852, Alfred Nobel returned to St. Petersburg to work in his father’s factory, manufacturing military equipment during the Crimean War. The company struggled to transition to peacetime production of steamboat machinery after the war ended in 1856, and it declared bankruptcy in 1859. Together with his parents, Alfred returned to Sweden, while his brothers Robert and Ludvig stayed in Russia to revive the family business.

They successfully saved the family business and went on to develop the oil industry in the southern part of the Russian empire. They were highly successful, becoming some of the wealthiest people in their era.

Back home in Sweden, Alfred soon began experimenting with explosives in a small laboratory on his father’s estate. The only dependable explosive for mines was black powder, a type of gunpowder. 

A recently discovered liquid compound, nitroglycerin, is a much more powerful explosive, but it was so unstable that it was difficult to handle with any degree of safety. Be that as it may, Nobel, in 1862, built a small factory to manufacture nitroglycerin. At the same time, he undertook research to find a safe way to control the explosive’s detonation. 

So, when did Alfred Nobel invent the detonator?

In 1863, Alfred invented a practical detonator comprising a wooden plug inserted into a more significant nitroglycerin charge put inside a metal container. The explosion of the plug’s small charge of black powder detonates the much more powerful charge of liquid nitroglycerin. This detonator marked the beginning of Nobel’s reputation as an inventor and the fortune he was to acquire as a maker of explosives.

Over the years, he established factories and laboratories in over 90 different locations across over 20 countries. Despite spending much of his life in Paris, he was constantly on the move. Victor Hugo once referred to him as Europe’s richest vagabond. 

When he wasn’t traveling or conducting business, Nobel worked hard in his various laboratories, first in Stockholm and later in Hamburg (Germany), Ardeer (Scotland), Paris and Sevran (France), Karlskoga (Sweden), and San Remo (Italy) (Italy). 

He concentrated on advancing explosive technology and other chemical inventions, such as synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk, etc. 

He had 355 patents by the time he died in 1896.

Inventions

Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, inventor, engineer, entrepreneur, and businessman, had acquired 355 patents worldwide when he died in 1896. He invented dynamite and experimented with making synthetic rubber, leather, and artificial silk, among many other things.

Alfred Nobel was not discouraged. In 1864, he could start mass production of nitroglycerine.

Dynamite

Dynamite

Alfred Nobel experimented with various additives to make nitroglycerine handling safer. 

He soon discovered that combining nitroglycerine and kieselguhr turned the liquid into a paste that could be shaped into rods suitable for insertion into drilling holes. 

In 1867, he patented this substance under the name dynamite.

He also invented a detonator that could be ignited by lighting a fuse to detonate the dynamite rods. He made these inventions when the diamond drilling crown and pneumatic drill became widely used. These inventions, when combined, significantly reduced the cost of blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals, and many other types of construction work.

The dynamite and detonating caps market expanded rapidly, and Alfred Nobel established himself as a skilled entrepreneur and inventor. By 1865, his factory in Krümmel, near Hamburg, Germany, was exporting nitroglycerine explosives to other European, American, and Australian countries. Nobel found that combining nitroglycerin with an absorbent inert substance like kieselguhr is safer and easier to handle. 

Nobel first demonstrated his explosive in 1867 at a quarry in Redhill, Surrey, England.

Nobel considered naming the powerful substance Nobel’s Safety Powder to help reestablish his name and improve the image of his company after previous controversies involving dangerous explosives. Still, he chose dynamite, which refers to the Greek word for power.

Gelignite

Nobel later mixed nitroglycerin with various nitrocellulose compounds, similar to collodion. But he settled on a more efficient recipe combining another nitrate explosive. He got a transparent, jelly-like substance that was more powerful than dynamite. 

Gelignite, or blasting gelatine, was patented in 1876. It was followed by a slew of similar combinations, modified by adding potassium nitrate and other substances. Gelignite was more stable, transportable, and quickly formed to fit into bored holes, such as those used in drilling and mining.

It became the standard mining technology during the Age of Engineering, bringing Nobel great financial success at the expense of his health. 

Ballistite

The research mentioned above led to Nobel’s discovery of ballistite. Ballistite is a smokeless powder consisting of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose chiefly in a 40 to 60 percent ratio. It is the precursor to many modern smokeless powder explosives still used as rocket propellants.

But how did Alfred Nobel stabilize nitroglycerine? Nobel stabilized nitroglycerin by mixing it with clay-rich silicone and sodium carbonate so that it would not explode at the slightest jolt. Together, these substances produced a much more stable mixture and retained the explosive properties of nitroglycerin.

Before you ask, what accident occurred when Alfred Nobel was working to control nitroglycerine? In 1864, Alfred Nobel was tragically confronted with the latent power of nitroglycerine. An accidental explosion at Heleneborg killed his youngest brother, Emil, and several others. Because of the explosion, all manufacture of nitroglycerine was forbidden within the Stockholm city limits.

But, you could ask, why go to all that trouble?

Why did Alfred Nobel invent dynamite? 

What was its purpose?

He invented dynamite to be used in building and mining, but he also used it to make bombs, canons, and rockets used in wars. Nobel hoped his inventions would benefit humanity.

How did he do this?

How did Alfred Nobel invent dynamite?

By mixing nitroglycerine with fine sand, known as kieselguhr, Alfred Nobel discovered that nitroglycerine, liquid in its natural state, turns into a paste that can be shaped into rods.

Why did Alfred Nobel invent the detonator, in case you were wondering?

Alfred Nobel’s invention of the detonator ensured a controlled explosion of nitroglycerine and made it possible to introduce this much stronger explosive into the civilian explosives market. 

8 Destructive Inventions Ever Made

Personal Life

Meanwhile, Nobel’s brothers, Ludvig and Robert, had developed newly discovered oil fields near Baku (now in Azerbaijan) along the Caspian Sea and had become extremely wealthy. 

Alfred’s worldwide interests in explosives and holdings in his brothers’ Russian companies netted him an enormous fortune. 

He became interested in Sweden’s arms industry in 1893, and the following year he purchased ironworks in Bofors, near Varmland, which became the foundation of the well-known Bofors arms factory. 

Alfred Nobel’s laboratory in Bofors, Sweden

Work and travel demands left little time for a personal life. 

Alfred Nobel never married, apparently preferring the pleasures of the invention to the pleasures of romantic attachment. He had boundless energy and found it difficult to unwind after long work periods. He had a lifelong passion for literature. 

So you may ask, Did Alfred Nobel also write? 

Yes, he wrote plays, novels, and poems, almost all of which went unpublished. 

He was 43 years old and felt like an old man. He advertised in a newspaper, “Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks a lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.”

The most qualified applicant was an Austrian lady named Countess Bertha Kinsky. However, she returned to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner after only a short time working for Nobel. Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner remained friends and exchanged letters for decades despite this. 

Bertha von Suttner grew increasingly critical of the arms race in later years. She became a prominent figure in the peace movement after writing the book Lay Down Your Arms

Bertha Von Suttner

It was said this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his last will and testament, which included a prize for individuals or organizations that promoted peace. 

Several years after Alfred Nobel’s death, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) awarded Bertha von Suttner the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize.

Alfred had built a reputation as a liberal or even a socialist among his contemporaries. Still, he actually distrusted democracy, opposed women’s suffrage, and maintained a benign paternalistic attitude toward his many employees. Though Nobel was a pacifist who hoped that the destructive powers of his inventions would help bring the war to an end, his outlook on humanity and nations was pessimistic.

Nobel’s enigmatic personality perplexed his contemporaries. Although his business required him to travel almost constantly, he remained a lonely recluse prone to bouts of depression. He lived a retired and simple life and had ascetic habits, but he could be a gracious dinner host, a good listener, and a sharp wit. 

Nobel was suspected of high treason against France because he sold ballistite to Italy. So, in 1891, he moved from Paris to Sanremo, Italy. 

Alfred Nobel’s laboratory in Italy

Nobel had developed angina pectoris by 1895, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1896 at his villa in San Remo, Italy. He is buried in Norra Begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.

At the time of Nobel’s death, his global business empire included over 90 factories producing explosives and ammunition.

factories producing explosives and ammunition

The reading of his will, written in Paris on November 27, 1895, and deposited in a bank in Stockholm, came as a tremendous surprise to his family, relatives, friends, and the public. 

But it is noteworthy that Alfred was generous in humanitarian and scientific philanthropy. He set aside a large part of his fortune to create the Nobel Prizes, the most prestigious awards in the world.

We can only make an educated guess on the reasons for Nobel’s establishment of the Nobel Prizes. He was reserved about himself, and he told no one about his decision in the months leading to his death. 

The most plausible hypothesis is that a strange incident in 1888 triggered the train of thought that led to his bequest for the Nobel Prizes. Alfred’s brother Ludvig died that year while visiting Cannes, France. 

The French press reported Ludvig’s death but mixed him up with Alfred, with one paper carrying the caption Le Marchand de la mort est mort (The merchant of death is dead.) 

Maybe Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid this posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. It is safe to say that the actual awards he established reflect his lifelong interest in physics, chemistry, physiology, and literature. 

There is also plenty of evidence that his friendship with prominent Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner inspired him to establish the peace prize.

Nobel remains a figure of paradoxes and contradictions: a brilliant, lonely man, part pessimist and part idealist, who invented the powerful explosives used in modern warfare while also founding the world’s most prestigious prizes for intellectual services rendered to humanity.

Awards

If awards for inventions and discoveries were abundant during his time, Nobel probably would have an enviable stack. There were honors and distinctions in recognition of his brilliant mind as it was.

  • Uppsala University awarded Alfred Noble an honorary doctorate in 1893.
  • In 1867, Alfred Nobel patented the nitroglycerine-based explosive dynamite. Shortly after that, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences bestowed an honorary award on him the following year for “significant inventions for the practical use of mankind.”
  • The Alfred Nobel Monument in Saint Petersburg is on the Petrogradskaya Embankment along the Bolshaya Nevka River. They dedicated it to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first Nobel Prize presentation in 1991.

Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize

Since the beginning, five prizes have been awarded each year. The first three honors are physical science, chemistry, and medical science or physiology. 

The fourth award is for literary work, and the fifth is for the person or society who evinces the greatest service to the cause and advancement of peace congresses.

Since 1901, the Nobel Prizes and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded 603 times to 962 individuals and 25 organizations, including Mother Teresa, Tawakkol Karman, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Albert Einstein.

FAQs surrounding the Nobel Prize

1. What did Alfred Nobel do with his will?

He wrote in his last will that much of his fortune should be used to award prizes to people who have achieved their best in physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature, or peace.

2. Why did Alfred Nobel donate the majority of his wealth?

In his will, Nobel stated that his fortune should create a series of awards for those who contribute the greatest benefit to humankind through their contributions to physics, chemistry, medical science, literature, and peace. 

The prize, which he established and laid the foundation for in 1895, shows his diverse interests.

3. How much money did Alfred Nobel leave for the Nobel prize?

Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total estate, amounting to 31 million Swedish kronor. 

4. What are the five fields of the Nobel Prize?

On December 10, 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace.

Nobel Prize Fast and Fun Facts

Key Takeaway

Many of Nobel’s companies have evolved into industrial enterprises that continue to play an essential role in the world economy, such as Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in the United Kingdom, Société Centrale de Dynamite, and Dyno Industries in Norway.

Creativity was the spark of leadership in him, and without it, he would have been just another average industrialist. Nobel always endured every obstacle and had intense grit.

Some people will applaud him as the creator of the Nobel Prize, but we should celebrate him as a great indigenous hero. 

Even though Nobel would slow down to reconsider the effects of the deaths later, he continued to push through the calamities. He persevered through the most challenging part of his life. Nobel’s perseverance leads to his success. He was indeed a Man of Noble Thought.

Alfred Nobel’s brilliance stemmed from his ability to combine the discerning mind of a scientist and inventor with the forward-thinking dynamism of an industrialist. 

Nobel was passionate about social and peace issues and held radical views. He was a big fan of literature and wrote his poetry and plays. 

The Nobel Prizes extended and fulfilled his lifetime interests.

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Brian Hadi Attarbashi

Brian is the CEO of AI bees. When he is not running the company with German precision, Brian writes expert articles about marketing and manufacturing. When not doing these, you will find him rescuing dogs or mowing competition down at a jiu jitsu studio.

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