Alfred Nobel

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Alfred Nobel

Born October 21, 1833
Stockholm, Sweden
Died December 10, 1896
Sanremo, Italy
Occupation Chemist, engineer, innovator, armaments manufacturer and the inventor of dynamite.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel  ( October 21, 1833, Stockholm, Sweden December 10, 1896, Sanremo, Italy) was a Swedish chemist, engineer, innovator, armaments manufacturer and the inventor of dynamite. He owned Bofors, a major armaments manufacturer, which he had redirected from its previous role as an iron and steel mill. In his last will, he used his enormous fortune to institute the Nobel Prizes. The synthetic element Nobelium was named after him.

Personal background

Nobel, a descendant of the 17th century scientist, Olaus Rudbeck (1630-1708), was the third son of Immanuel Nobel (1801-1872). Born in Stockholm, he went with his family in 1842 to St. Petersburg, where his father (who had invented modern plywood) started a "torpedo" works. In 1859 this was left to the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831-1888), by whom it was greatly enlarged, and Alfred, returning to America with his family and his father after the bankruptcy of their family business, 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 Torino). Several explosions were reported at their family-owned factory in Heleneborg, and a disastrous one in 1864 killed Alfred's younger brother Emil and several other workers.

Since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been honoring men and women from all corners of the globe for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and for work in peace. The foundations for the prize were laid in 1895 when Alfred Nobel wrote his last will, leaving much of his wealth to the establishment of the Nobel Prize.

Less well known is that Alfred Nobel also wrote a book. His only book, Nemesis, a prose tragedy in four acts about Beatrice Cenci, partly inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's blank verse tragedy in five acts The Cenci, was printed when he was dying, and the whole stock except for three copies was destroyed immediately after his death, being regarded as scandalous and blasphemous. The first surviving edition (bilingual Swedish-Esperanto) was published in Sweden in 2003. The play has not yet (May 2003) been translated into any language other than Esperanto.

Alfred Nobel is buried in Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.


Nobel found that when nitroglycerin was incorporated in an absorbent inert substance like kieselguhr (diatomaceous earth) it became safer and more convenient to manipulate, and this mixture he patented in 1867 as dynamite. Nobel demonstrated his explosive for the first time that year, at a quarry in Redhill, Surrey, England.

He next combined nitroglycerin with another explosive, gun-cotton, and obtained a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was a still more powerful explosive than dynamite. Gelignite, or Blasting gelatin as it was called, was patented in 1876, and was followed by a host of similar combinations, modified by the addition of potassium nitrate, and various other substances.

The Prizes

The erroneous publication in 1888 of a premature obituary of Nobel by a French newspaper, condemning his invention of dynamite, is said to have made him decide to leave a better legacy to the world after his death. The obituary stated Le marchand de la mort est mort ("The merchant of death is dead") and went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday."

On November 27, 1895 at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. He died of a stroke on December 10, 1896 at Sanremo, Italy. The amount set aside for the Nobel Prize foundation was 31 million kronor (4,223,500.00 USD).

The first three of these prizes are for eminence in physical science, in chemistry and in medical science or physiology; the fourth is for the most remarkable literary work "in an ideal direction" and the fifth is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international brother/sisterhood, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.

The formulation about the literary prize, "in an ideal direction" (Swedish i idealisk riktning), is cryptic and has caused much consternation. For many years, the Swedish Academy interpreted "ideal" as "idealistic" (in Swedish idealistisk), and used it as a pretext to not give the prize to important but less romantic authors, such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Leo Tolstoy. This interpretation has been revised, and the prize given to, for example, Dario Fo and José Saramago, who definitely do not belong to the camp of literary idealism.

When reading Nemesis in its original Swedish and looking at his own philosophical and literary standpoint, it seems possible that his intention might have been rather the opposite of that first believed - that the prize should be given to authors who fight for their ideals against such authorities as God, Church and State.

There was also quite a lot of room for interpretation by the bodies he had named for deciding on the physical sciences and chemistry prizes, given that he had not consulted them before making the will. In his one-page testament he stipulated that the money should go to discoveries or inventions in the physical sciences and to discoveries or improvements in chemistry. He had opened the door to technological awards, but he had not left instructions on how to do the split between science and technology. Since the deciding bodies he had chosen in these domains were more concerned with science than technology it is not surprising that the prizes went to scientists and not to engineers, technicians or other inventors. In a sense the technological prizes announced recently by the World Technology Network are an indirect (and thus not funded by the Nobel foundation) continuation of the wishes of Nobel, as he set them out in his testament.

In 2001, his great-grandnephew, Peter, asked the Bank of Sweden to differentiate its award to economists given "in Alfred Nobel's memory" from the five other awards. This has caused much controversy whether the prize for Economics is actually a "Nobel Prize" (see Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).

Nobel Prize rumors

There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics (the Fields Medal is often considered to be the equivalent in terms of prestige). A common legend states that Nobel decided against a prize in mathematics because a woman - said to be either his fiancé, wife, or mistress - rejected him for or cheated on him with a famous mathematician, often claimed to be Gösta Mittag-Leffler. There is no historical evidence to support the story, and Nobel was never married.

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