Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on 21 October 1833, as the third of four sons of Immanuel Nobel, was a self-educated inventor. As Nobel’s father did not do well in business in Stockholm, he moved to St. Petersburg in Russia in 1842. He manufactured rifles and land and water mines.
Nobel was an unhealthy child and tutors therefore educated him at home. For a year he studied chemistry in Paris, and spent four years in the USA working under the direction of John Ericsson, a naval engineer and shipbuilder. In his years of studying he travelled extensively in Europe and the USA, and became fluent in five languages. He acquired an excellent knowledge of chemistry, engineering, and foreign business methods. When he was 21 years old, Nobel returned to St. Petersburg.
Nobel resumed his experiments and became interested in the highly explosive nitro-glycerine. During his lifetime he made millions of dollars in profits from his invention and manufacture of explosives. Some of his inventions significantly increased the killing power of weapons, and wars became more horrible.
Still a man of poor health, Nobel took over the family business, and returned to Sweden in 1863 where he set up a factory to produce nitroglycerin. In 1864 a tremendous explosion destroyed the small factory killing 5 people. His youngest brother, Emil, was one of the dead. The Swedish government forbade Nobel to rebuild the factory. This made him determined to make the explosive safe to handle, and he established the new production line on a barge moored in a lake. In 1866 he found the safer explosive in dynamite. Leading up to the discovery of dynamite, several disastrous explosions occurred at international ports, and many countries forbade its vessels to carry nitroglycerin. The invention made Nobel wealthy.
Nobel never married. He found recreation in his laboratory and in writing poetry. He spent the next decade setting up factories in the USA and Europe. His blasting gelatine, in which guncotton was used to gelatinize the nitro-glycerine came in 1875, and two years later came the invention of ballistite, one of the first smokeless propellants for firearms.
Nobel the traveller
He became a world traveller and had homes in Paris, Stockholm, and San Remo. During 1876 he met Bertha Kinsky, later known as Baroness von Suttner, and one of the world’s leading pacifists. She played a major role in contributing detail to Nobel’s ideas about world peace, the advancement of scientific knowledge, and to encourage literary achievement. Nobel left much of his fortune ($9.2 million per annum) for the Nobel prizes. The prizes were first awarded on 10 December 1901, the fifth anniversary of Nobel’s death.
He died in San Remo, Italy on 10 December 1896, leaving the executors of his will to define the details of administering the Nobel prizes. He stipulated that the interest be divided into five equal parts. Each part to be awarded to the person or institution who made the most important contribution in one of five different fields – physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, who have produced the most distinguished literary work of an idealist tendency, and those who have contributed most toward world peace.
In addition to a cash award, each Nobel Prize-winner also receives a gold medal and a diploma bearing the winner’s name and field of achievement. The prizewinners are known as Nobel laureates.