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Alfred Bernhard Nobel
1833 - 1896

The Swedish chemist Alfred Bernhard Nobel invented dynamite and other explosives, but he is best remembered for the Nobel Prizes, which he endowed with the bulk of his personal fortune.


Alfred Nobel was born Oct. 21, 1833, in Stockholm. His father, impecunious in the Sweden of the 1830s, was more fortunate in Russia and by 1842 had established himself in a St. Petersburg engineering and armaments concern. From there in 1850 Alfred Nobel set out on a 2-year tour of western Europe and the United States, seeking ideas and contacts in engineering. Cancellation of munitions contracts after the Crimean War crippled the St. Petersburg concern, and Nobel's father was again impoverished.

Alfred Nobel remained in Russia when his father returned to Stockholm in 1858. Both were attempting to tame the violent explosive liquid nitroglycerin. In 1863 Alfred rejoined his father, and in that year he succeeded in exploding nitroglycerin at will by initiating the detonation with a gunpowder charge. In 1865 he introduced the mercury fulminate detonator, the key to all the later high explosives. Nobel patented his invention and set about exploiting it. Works for the manufacture of nitroglycerin were established near Stockholm and Hamburg, and the explosive oil was shipped the world over. In 1866 Nobel visited the United States and erected factories in New York and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, in Europe the Nobel companies faced mounting criticism arising from numerous accidental nitroglycerin explosions in transit or storage. Nobel had foreseen these difficulties and as early as 1864 had tried absorbing the sensitive liquid in porous solids, including kieselguhr. This material reduced the blasting efficiency by a quarter, but the resulting explosive was solid, plastic, and relatively insensitive to physical or thermal shock. This was dynamite, patented in 1867. The new invention was vigorously exploited and a worldwide industry established. In 1875 came gelignite, a mixture of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin; and in 1887 ballistite, similar to gelignite, was produced in response to the military demand for a smokeless, slow-burning projectile propellant. This was Nobel's last major invention, but throughout his life he improved on them all in detail, patented them, and left them to his companies, with which he had as little formal contact as possible.

From 1865 to 1873 Nobel lived in Hamburg and then in Paris until 1891, when the Italian military adoption of ballistite made him unpopular there. He moved to San Remo, Italy, where he died on Dec. 10, 1896. He was truly international, travelling ceaselessly. For all his achievements, he was a reserved and shy man who hated personal publicity.

Nobel's will directed that the bulk of his estate, above 33 million kronor, should endow annual prizes for those who, in the preceding year, had most benefited mankind in five specified subjects: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, or peace. His will was proved within 4 years and the Nobel Foundation created. A Nobel Prize is one of the highest honours that an individual can receive.


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 seventeenth century scientist, Olaus Rudbeck (1630-1708), was the third son of Immanuel Nobel (1801-1872) and Andriette Ahlsell Nobel (1805-1889). Born in Stockholm on October 21 1833, he went with his family in 1842 to St. Petersburg, where his father (who had invented modern plywood) started a "torpedo" works. Alfred studied chemistry with Professor Nikolay Nikolaevich Zinin. In 1859, the factory was left to the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831-1888), who greatly enlarged it. Alfred, returning to Sweden with 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 occurred at their family-owned factory in Heleneborg; one disastrous one killed Alfred's younger brother Emil and several other workers in 1864.

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

In 1876 Bertha von Suttner became Alfred Nobel's secretary but after only a brief stay, left and married 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, which she won in 1905.

Nobel also wrote Nemesis, a prose tragedy in four acts about Beatrice Cenci, partly inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci, was printed while he was dying. The entire 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 been translated to Slovenian via the Esperanto version.

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 handle, 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.

Nobel later on combined nitroglycerin with another explosive, gun-cotton, and obtained a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was a 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 him for his invention of dynamite, is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death.[1] 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."[2] 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. He left 31 million kronor (4,223,500 USD1896~103,931,888 USD2007) to fund the prizes.

The first three of these prizes are awarded for eminence in physical science, chemistry and medical science or physiology; the fourth is for 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 fraternity, 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" (i idealisk riktning in Swedish), is cryptic and has caused much confusion. For many years, the Swedish Academy interpreted "ideal" as "idealistic" (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 since been revised, and the prize has been awarded to, for example, Dario Fo and José Saramago, who definitely do not belong to the camp of literary idealism.

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 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 had not left instructions on how to deal with the distinction between science and technology. Since the deciding bodies he had chosen were more concerned with the former, 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 (not funded by the Nobel foundation) indirectly fill this gap.

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).











This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008