Alfred Nobel

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Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) was a Swedish chemist, engineer and armaments manufacturer. He is noted for the invention of dynamite and the inauguration of the Nobel Prizes for achievements in the fields of chemistry, physics, literature, medicine or physiology, and peace.

Early life

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Sweden on October 21, 1833. He was the third son of Immanuel Nobel, the inventor of modern plywood. At the age of 9 his family moved to St. Petersburg where his father founded a factory to make naval mines for use in the Crimean War. As a wealth and successful industrialist Immanuel was able to give his sons a first-class education by private tutors. In Russia, Alfred studied chemistry under Professor Nikolay Nikolaevich Zinin. He also achieved fluency in five languages; Swedish Russian, English French and German. Alfred had a wide variety of interests ranging from chemistry and physics to English literature and poetry. In order to widen his son's horizons, Immanuel Nobel sent Alfred abroad for further training in chemical engineering and in a two-year period he visited France, Germany, Sweden and the United States. Paris became his favorite city and whilst working in a private laboratory there he met Ascanio Sobrero, the inventor of the volatile and unpredictable, powerful explosive; nitroglycerin. Alfred took an interest in this unstable compound for which he saw great potential if it could be tamed.

The invention of dynamite

Alfred was requested to return to Russia in 1852 in order help with the family business which was booming because of the munitions being delivered to the Russian Army. In Russia, Alfred worked with his father to develop a stable version of nitroglycerin. However, with the end of the war, Immanuel Nobel's business was forced into bankruptcy leaving the two eldest sons, Robert and Ludvig, to salvage the company. Returning to Sweden in 1863, Alfred continued his development of nitroglycerin. After several explosions, including one that killed his brother Emil, the authorities prohibited his research within the Stockholm city limits and he moved to a barge anchored on Lake Mälaren. After starting commercial production of nitroglycerin in 1864, Nobel experimented with different additives. He discovered that by mixing it with kieselguhr the volatile liquid became a relatively stable paste which could be shaped into cylinders for insertion into drilled holes. He patented this material in 1867 under the name dynamite. In order to produce an explosion from the stable compound, he also invented the detonator or blasting cap, which could be triggered by the ignition of a fuse. The parallel invention of the diamond drilling crown meant that the costs of major civil engineering works were drastically reduced.

Commercial success

The market for Nobel's products grew rapidly and Alfred proved to be a skillful businessman as well as a scientist. By 1865, his factory in Germany was exporting nitroglycerin explosives throughout the world. Eventually he built 90 laboratories and factories in 20 different countries. While basing himself in Paris, France he continued to travel widely and was described by Victor Hugo as "Europe's richest vagabond". Not content with developing explosives, Nobel registered 355 patents including materials such as synthetic rubber, leather, and silk.

Baku in Azerbaijan had long been famous for its oil seeps and in 1872, the Tsarist regime in Russia started to auction off sections of the oilfield. With his two older brothers, Robert and Ludvig, Alfred began the process to turn Baku into one the first large-scale commercial oil-fields in Europe. After visiting Baku in search of walnut wood to make rifle stocks for the family's armaments factory in St. Petersburg, Alfred ended up buying tracts of oil-bearing land. Bringing in six Pennsylvanian drillers, Nobel transformed Russian oil-field technology. However, the remoteness of Baku meant that transporting wooden barrels full of crude oil to the western markets was a difficult task. But by 1880 Nobel had constructed the first oil pipeline in Europe to deliver the oil to Baku and with the profits from their enterprise they not only launched the world's first oil tanker, the Zoroaster, but also built the first continuous-process refinery as well as a railway to transport the crude to St. Petersburg. At one time a single well form the Apspheron oil-field could produced 4.5 million litres, far surpassing any well in the United States. It was only the quantity of oil from Baku that prevented John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil from establishing the same monopoly position in Europe that it had in the United States.

Personal life

Alfred Nobel's dedication to his work and travel did not leave much room for family life. Feeling like an old man at the age of 43 he advertised in a newspaper - "Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household." The position was taken by the Austrian, Countess Bertha Kinsky. She worked a short time for Nobel but returned to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. Despite this, she and Alfred remained firm friends and corresponded with each other for many years. Alfred Nobel was a known atheist.

War and peace

Nobel unknowingly became one of the first proponents of MAD (mutually-assured destruction) when he said :

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.

However, his friend Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race and wrote a seminal book, Lay Down Your Arms which undoubtedly influenced Nobel. When he died in Sanremo, Italy on December 10, 1895 his last will laid out the proposal that his estate be invested in a fund, the interest of which was to be distributed amongst five prizes. These were to be awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Physiology or Medicine, and Peace. The first prizes were not awarded until 1901. In 1905 the Peace Prize was awarded to Bertha von Suttner.

Nobel Prize

Medal Nobel Peace Prizes.jpg

On 27 November 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament in Paris, giving the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes; this Nobel Prizes are given for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature, and peace. Named in honor of Alfred Nobel, the first prize was granted in 1901. Each laureate receives a gold medal, a diploma and a quantity of money. The Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Literature are awarded in Sweden; the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Norway. The Nobel Laureates take center stage in Stockholm on 10 December when they receive the Nobel Prize Medal, Nobel Prize Diploma and document confirming the Nobel Prize amount from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. In Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates receive their Nobel Peace Prize from the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the presence of King Harald V of Norway. [1]

The Nobel Prize is an international award administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank established The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize. Each prize consists of a medal, personal diploma, and a cash award. [2]

The will (fragment):

The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. [3]