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Alfred Nobel: A Biography of a Scientist Series

Updated on August 10, 2014
Alfred Nobel, the scientist, inventor and entrepreneur
Alfred Nobel, the scientist, inventor and entrepreneur

Introduction

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.

Early Life

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.

This is the molecular structure of Nitroglycerin, the very powerful explosive that made Alfred Nobel famous and wealthy
This is the molecular structure of Nitroglycerin, the very powerful explosive that made Alfred Nobel famous and wealthy
Nitroglycerin in its more stable form as dynamite sticks
Nitroglycerin in its more stable form as dynamite sticks

Later Life

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.

The Nobel Prize Medal and a monetary award are awarded annually to scientists, writers, and to promoters of peace in the world. This the front and back of the prestigious award
The Nobel Prize Medal and a monetary award are awarded annually to scientists, writers, and to promoters of peace in the world. This the front and back of the prestigious award

© 2013 Melvin Porter

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    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      5 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Glass-Jewelry, thanks for your comment. On that note, it is amazing that Nobel himself didn't lose his own life while working with nitroglycerine. He was working with it in its most unstable form as a liquid before he fully understood the chemical properties of this explosive chemical.

    • Glass-Jewelry profile image

      Marco Piazzalunga 

      5 years ago from Presezzo, Italy

      Last September, I visited the villa of Nobel in San Remo and it was a very exciting experience and at the same time very moving.

      What most struck my soul is the deep sense of guilt and remorse this great character had since the years of his youth, when many of the dozens of dynamite's factories all over the world exploded by accident.

      He never had peace until the end of his days for all workers died in these accidents, and this probably was one of the main reasons that led him to create this Noble Prize fund dedicated to best talents in the field of science and technology.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      5 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Genna, thanks for reading my hub. I am glad you enjoyed reading it.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 

      5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I didn’t know much about Alfred Nobel until I read this very educational hub. You have given a life, a face, and a man to the name of this scientist. What he initiated in the name of science to benefit humanity is really quite remarkable. Well done, Mel.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      5 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Credence, Happy New Year to you. Nobel invention of dynamite was beneficial to the construction industry and the mining industry. He had no intention of using dynamite for warfare but that is what happened after his death.

    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 

      5 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Melpor, happy new year! It is ironic that a man that spent so much time developing explosives would have a peace prize named after him.

      Correct me, but I recall that he had something to do with the development of dynamite. He said that the explosives that he developed were so powerful that war would be unthinkable with the parties having such firepower in their respective arsenals. Little did he know and fortunately did not see, that WWI was coming soon.

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