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Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel (October 21, 1833 – December 10, 1896) was a Swedish scientist, engineer, and weapons manufacturer. He is well known for the invention of dynamite and for creating the Nobel Prize. He left instructions in his will that his money should create the Nobel Prize after reading an article in a French newspaper that called him the "merchant of death" and said that he would be remembered for his invention of dynamite and its ability to kill more people than ever before. Nobel left 31 million kronor (the Swedish currency) to the awards after his death on December 10, 1896.

Personal background

Alfred was the third son of Emmanuel Nobel (1801-1872), born at Stockholm, but, at an early age he went with his family to St. Petersburg, where his father started a torpedo works. In 1859 this was left to the care of the second son, Ludvig Emmanuel (1831-1888), by whom it was greatly enlarged, and 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 nitroglycerin (discovered in 1847 by Ascanio Sobrero, a fellow-student with Alfred under Théophile-Jules Pelouze at the University of Torino). Several explosions were reported at their family-owned factory in Heleneborg, and a disastrous one in 1864 killed Alfred's younger brother Emil and several other workers.

Alfred Nobel young
Alfred Nobel at a young age

Less well-known is the fact that Alfred Nobel was also a playwright. His only play (Nemesis, a prose tragedy in four acts about Beatrice Cenci, partly inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's blank verse tragedy in five acts The Cenci), was printed when he was dying, and the whole stock except 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 not yet (May 2003) been translated into English, or into any other language than Esperanto.

Dynamite

Nobel found that when nitroglycerin was incorporated with an absorbent, inert substance like kieselguhr (diatomaceous earth) it became safer and more convenient to manipulate, and this mixture he patented in 1867 as dynamite.

He next combined nitroglycerin with another high explosive, gun-cotton, and obtained a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was a still more powerful explosive than dynamite. 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, wood-pulp and various other substances.

Some thirteen years later Nobel produced ballistite, one of the earliest of the nitroglycerin smokeless gunpowders, containing in its latest forms about equal parts of gun-cotton and nitroglycerin. This powder was a precursor of cordite, and Nobel's claim that his patent covered the latter was the occasion of vigorously contested law-suits between him and the British Government in 1894 and 1895. Cordite also consists of nitroglycerin and gun-cotton, but the form of the latter which its inventors wished to use was the most highly nitrated variety, which is not soluble in mixtures of ether and alcohol, whereas Nobel contemplated using a less nitrated form, which is soluble in such mixtures. The question was complicated by the fact that it is in practice impossible to prepare either of these two forms without admixture of the other; but eventually the courts decided against Nobel.

The Prizes

From the manufacture of dynamite and other explosives, and from the exploitation of the Baku oil-fields, in the development of which he and his brothers, Ludvig and Robert Hjalmar (1829-1896), took a leading part, he amassed an immense fortune. Then on November 27, 1895 at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside his estate to establish the Nobel Prize after his death (to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality). He died of a stroke on December 10, 1896 at San Remo, Italy.

The first three of these prizes are for eminence in physical science, in chemistry and in medical science or physiology; the fourth is for the most remarkable 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 brother/sisterhood, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace.


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