Nov 17, 2022 • 6M

Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Most Prestigious International Award

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Alfred Nobel was born on 21 October 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden as the fourth son of Immanuel Nobel and Karolina Andriette Ahlsell. Alfred was interested in explosives from a very early age. He learned the basics of engineering from his father, Immanuel, an engineer, and inventor who built bridges and buildings and experimented with different ways of blasting rocks. 

Following losses and business downfall in his hometown, Immanuel moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1837. As his business flourished as a manufacturer of explosive mines and machine tools, the rest of the Nobel family left Stockholm in 1842 and joined Immanuel. Nobel received a first-class education in Russia, and by the age of 17, he was a competent chemist, fluent in English, French, German, Russian, and Swedish. 

He went abroad in 1850 for his higher studies and spent a year in Paris working in the private laboratory of a famous chemist Professor T. J. Pelouze. He also got the opportunity to work under the direction of John Ericsson, the builder of the ironclad warship Monitor. In Paris, Nobel met Ascanio Sobrero, a young Italian chemist who invented nitro-glycerine, a highly explosive liquid considered too dangerous to be of practical use. Nobel became fascinated with nitro-glycerine and, upon return, worked with his father to develop nitro-glycerine as a commercially and technically helpful explosive. Nobel continued working in his father's factory during the Crimean War making military equipment.

After the war, their business faced difficulties and went bankrupt in 1859. The Nobel family returned to Sweden in 1863, while Alfred's elder brothers Robert and Ludvig stayed back to continue the business in Russia. With his obsession with nitro-glycerine, Nobel continued experimenting with this hazardous explosive. In the same year, he invented a practical detonator using nitro-glycerine. It led to the establishment of Nobel's fame as an inventor. 

In his last will, Nobel wrote that a huge amount of his fortune, which he had deposited in a bank in Stockholm, should be used to establish international awards in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace.

But an unfortunate accident in 1864 during the experiment killed several people, including Nobel’s younger brother, Emil. Following the accident, the government banned these experiments within the premises of Stockholm city. However, Nobel was not ready to back off. He continued his experiments on a barge or flat-bottom boat on Lake Mälaren. In 1865 he developed the blasting cap, an improved detonator that started the modern use of high explosives.

Through these experiments, Nobel found that mixing nitro-glycerine with kieselguhr, a fine porous siliceous sand, would turn the hazardous liquid into a paste that could make it much safer and easier to use. Nobel named it dynamite and acquired patents for it in Great Britain and the United States. With the invention of dynamite in 1867, Nobel established global fame and found a place among the greatest scientists of all time. Soon Nobel’s dynamite was used to cut canals, blast tunnels, and build roads and railways.

In the following decades, Nobel built several factories throughout Europe due to the high demand for dynamite in the construction field. He also formed a web of corporations to produce and market the explosives. Nobel continued his experiments on dynamite, and in 1875 he invented blasting gelatin, a more powerful form of dynamite. In 1887, he introduced one of the first nitro-glycerine smokeless powders, ballistite, a precursor of cordite.

Besides explosives, Nobel also invented synthetic rubber and leather, and artificial silk. In addition, he continued his passion for arts and literature and wrote plays, novels, and poems. Nobel had developed angina pectoris by 1895, and he died of a brain haemorrhage in 1896 at his estate in San Remo, Italy. By the time of his death, he had 355 patents, and his worldwide business empire consisted of more than 90 factories. 

In his last will, Nobel wrote that a huge amount of his fortune, which he had deposited in a bank in Stockholm, should be used to establish international awards in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. In 1901, as per Nobel’s will, the Nobel Prize was established, which to date, remains the most prestigious international award. 

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