Alfred Nobel is one of the most divisive figures in recent history. Some might choose to remember him as the man who brought innovation to explosives, thus forever revolutionizing construction, arms, mining, and many other industries. Of course, he was also the originator of the Nobel Prize, which has done wonders in awarding and encouraging the progress of knowledge. From strictly this perspective, one might deem Alfred Nobel as a complete angel, but there is also a school of thought who has condemned him as the perpetrator of many deaths, due to his work in advancing weaponry.
Regardless, it’s hard to deny that Alfred Nobel has left a massive imprint in modern society. In honor of his birthday, let’s unravel this monumental figure.
Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden on the 21st of October 1833, to parents were Immanuel and Caroline Nobel. Immanuel was also a brilliant inventor and engineer but he had difficulty translating his gifts to financial success, and the Nobel family spent much time in poverty. Conditions were so dire that out of eight Nobel children, only four made it to adulthood: Alfred and his brothers Robert, Ludvig, and Emil. Despite this, Alfred Nobel didn’t allow his surrounding reality to stunt his potential. Alfred was known as an intelligent and diligent boy. He showed great talent in literature and language, so much so that he was able to master four foreign languages while still in his teens. Furthermore, Alfredo obviously also inherited his father’s talent and passion for science.
Fortunes began to turn for the Nobel family in 1837 after Immanuel moved to St. Petersburg to produce weapons for the Russian government. This new roles allowed Immanuel to give his family a much more comfortable life, and he would move them to Russia with him in 1842. Out of the many that type of weapons that Immanuel provide for Russia, among them are landmines—this would be Alfred Nobel’s gateway to explosives.
This prosperous period the Nobel family did not last long. The end of the Crimean War in 1856 meant that the Russian government would no longer need Immanuel Nobel’s services. Desperate to keep the stability of his business, the Nobels began to look for new innovations. Immanuel and his now adult son Alfred set their sights on Nitroglycerin, a substance that offers a bigger explosive power than gunpowder, but were very unstable and difficult to control.
The two Nobels would attempt to apply nitroglycerin on their products to increase its power albeit in a controllable fashion. Immanuel’s efforts did not bear fruit. His son, however, began to show his teeth as an inventor
Alfred had worked in a lab with Ascanio Sobrero, the Italian chemist who first founded nitroglycerin. His experience with Sobrero would prove to be heavily impactful to his experiments. In 1863, Alfred Nobel discovered that nitroglycerin could be more manageable when mixed with a certain amount of gunpowder. This finding would be the basis of his invention called the Blasting Cap. The Blasting Cap consisted of a small metal cap containing a charge of mercury fulminate that could be exploded by either shock or moderate heat. This invention would signal his arrival as a influential figure in the field of explosives, and he would patent it in 1864.
Thanks to the Blasting Cap, Nobel could now mass produce nitroglycerin for commercial use. This product would be so popular that Nobel built factories all over Europe and the US. For a short while, Nobel would enjoy the fruits of his labor, but unfortunately, tragedy would soon follow. The Nitroglycerin that was produced by Nobel may have been relatively safer than its original state, but it was still far from perfect. Many factories and labs suffered accident and unintended, fatal explosions.—one of e which claimed the life of Emil, Alfred’s younger brother, who was killed in a lab accident on September 1864.
Dynamite, Gelignites and The Revolution of Industries
Just as he was as a child, Nobel would respond to tragedy by studying. He was eager to develop nitroglycerin that was truly safe and controllable—no more accidents.
While experimenting, Nobel discovered that mixing nitroglycerin with a porous substance such as coal woud produce a very powerful but stable explosive. Building upon this finding, Nobel's would devise his most invention, which he would name after the Greek word for power, “dynamis”, the device in question is of course, the dynamite -- patented in 1866.
The Dynamite skyrocketed Nobel's name and made him wildly wealthy. Dynamites were relatively easy to control, making it a popular tool for many industries such as construction, mining, weaponry, etc. Factories and laboratories all over the world would soon begin to employ Nobel’s invention.
Reaching a level of success far beyond his expectations did not extinguish Alfred Nobel's desire for innovation. In 1875, Nobel had moved to France, where he would began to develop Gelignite. Gelignite is an explosive material consisting of collodion-cotton (a type of nitrocellulose or guncotton) dissolved in either nitroglycerine or nitroglycol and mixed with wood pulp and saltpetre (sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate).
Gelignite was a significant improvement over dynamite. Its offered more power, could be used under water, and easier to shape. Moreover, unlike dynamite, Gelignite did not “sweat”-- the nitroglycerin wouldn’t drip out.
In 1887, Nobel founded and patented “Ballistite”, a smokeless propellant made from two high explosives, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. Nobel who was still living in France at the time, offered to sell his new inventions to the French government, but was declined. He would then license ballistites to Italy, which greatly angered France, so much so that he was forced to move to Italy in 1891, where he would spend the remainder of his life.
Nobel Prize and Legacy
Ironically, Nobel may have made much of his wealth and fame from making advancements in weaponry, however he identified as pacifist. This paradox (and naivety) is best pictured by these words that he had uttered while discussing dynamites: “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace”. This prediction, of course, proved to be fatally incorrect as Nobel’s inventions cause high numbers of death and destruction
Alfred Nobel had the idea for the Nobel Prize after a bizarre incident. In 1888, Alfred's older brother, Ludvig, had passed away, but the French media mistakenly believe that it was Alfred who had died.
Alfred, while browsing obituaries published in the newspapers at the time, discovered a harsh truth.. The media condemned him as sinister figure responsible for weapons that had killed thousands of live. One newspaper even labeled him as the "Merchant of Death". This greatly shook Nobel, and drove him to carve a more positive legacy.
In his will, Alfred Nobel stated that he had left most of his wealth to form the "Nobel Prize", an award given to those who have made outstanding contributions in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and Physiology or Medicine. The Nobel Prize was first awarded in a1901, today, it’s widely recognized as one of the most prestigious forms of award in the world, and has played a major role advancing and highlighting significant progress in science and knowledge
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