Alfred Nobel: A Biography of a Scientist Series
Alfred Nobel, a name we hear every year in the scientific community through a prestigious award bearing his name. This award is given to scientists who have made a significant contribution in science and medicine and to those who have made significant contribution in literature. The award is also given to those for their work in the area of peace in the world. Alfred Nobel was a scientist, inventor and entrepreneur. His most significant invention was the invention of dynamite and other explosive materials.
Alfred Nobel was born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden. He was the son of the well known engineer and inventor Immanuel Nobel who also had an interest in working with explosive material use for blasting. Even though Immanuel married a wealthy woman wealth did not stay with him due to a series of misfortunes in his construction business. He eventually filed for bankruptcy and moved his family to Finland and later to Russia.
After moving his family to Russia, Immanuel’s finances improved considerably that he was able to afford private teachers for Alfred. His education consisted of studies in natural sciences, languages, and literature and his strongest interest was in chemistry and physics. By 17 Alfred was able to speak fluently in Swedish, German, French, English and Russian. After turning eighteen, Alfred’s father sent him abroad in the United States were he would spend the next four years studying chemistry. His father sent him abroad in an effort to make him less of an introvert. He was a quiet fellow.
While away from his home Alfred visited other cities in Sweden, Germany and France. Paris became his most popular city and it is here where he would have his first encounter with the very explosive substance called nitroglycerin, after meeting the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who invented this very powerful explosive three years before. Nitroglycerin In its natural liquid state is highly unstable and the least amount of stress such as heat or a change in pressure can set off an explosion. This is a very dangerous stuff as a liquid.
Alfred’s father filed for bankruptcy a second time and moved his family back to Sweden in 1863. Alfred began spending a lot of time trying to find ways to make nitroglycerin more stable and safer to handle. He eventually discovered in 1866 that mixing nitroglycerin with an absorbent material such as clay rendered it safer and more convenient to handle. The mixture he created was called dynamite. He received a patent for it in 1867. Since clay is a very malleable material dynamite became a very popular explosive because it was easy to make them into cylindrical shape to fit in the drill holes in rocks for blasting. Alfred’s invention would dramatically reduced the cost of blasting for diamonds, drilling tunnels, and building canals. What make nitroglycerin so powerful as an explosive is that after detonation all those oxygen atoms in the nitroglycerin's molecule turn to a white hot, rapidly, expanding gas with a temperature as high as 9,000 deg Fahrenheit ( about 5,000 deg C). The gas produced is expanding at 30 times the speed of sound or mach 30 if you put it another way. As you can see, a lot of energy is released after detonation. Incredible as may sound, this is the same nitroglycerin used medically as a vasodilator for treatment of angina. It causes the blood vessels to dilate.
Alfred received patents for several other inventions related to explosions. He improved the method for detonating dynamites by inventing a detonator called a blasting cap and received patents in 1875 and 1876 for the invention of blasting gelatine and blasting powder, respectively.
Alfred was also an entrepreneur and became very wealthy in the process. In 1864 he established the Nitroglycerin AB in Stockholm, Sweden and the following year he built the Alfred Nobel & Company Factory in Krummel, Germany. He even established a company in the United States in 1866 called the United States Basting Oil Company. Alfred had established about 90 factories and laboratories in 20 countries and spent most of his time traveling to the many laboratories developing explosives technology. He also worked on other materials besides explosives such as synthetic rubber, artificial silk and leather. In the end Alfred held a total of 355 patents in electrochemistry, optics, biology and physiology.
Alfred never married but he did have one woman in his life, Countess Bertha Kinsky. He hired her as his secretary and supervisor of household. She worked for a short time for him and then eventually returned to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. Alfred and Bertha remained friends and stayed in contact with each other for years by writing letters to each others. During the arms race Bertha became involved in the peace movement and wrote a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms. Alfred was greatly influenced by Bertha’s work in the peace movement that when he wrote his final will he included a Prize for persons or organizations that promoted peace. Bertha was awarded a Nobel Prize for peace in 1905.
Alfred died on December 10, 1896, in San Remo, Italy and left behind a nine million dollar endowment fund to setup the Nobel Prize organization. The other Nobel Prizes were not known until his will was opened after his death. The other prizes as mentioned before are for work in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine. The prize is awarded yearly to people whose work helps humanity in these areas of science and peace.
© 2013 Melvin Porter