Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 21, 1833. (Encarta) His father Immanuel Nobel was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and buildings in Stockholm. In connection with his construction work Immanuel Nobel also experimented with different techniques of blasting rock. Alfred’s mother, Andrietta Ahlsell came from a wealthy family. Due to misfortunes in the construction work caused by the loss of some barges of building material, Immanuel Nobel was forced into bankruptcy the same year Alfred Nobel was born. In 1837, Immanuel Nobel left Stockholm and his family to start a new career in Finland and in Russia. To support the family, Andrietta Nobel started a grocery store which provided a modest income. Meanwhile Immanuel Nobel was successful in his new enterprise in St. Petersburg, Russia. He started a mechanical workshop which provided equipment for the Russian army and he also convinced the Tsar and his generals that naval mines could be used to block enemy naval ships from threatening the city. The naval mines designed by Immanuel Nobel were simple devices consisting of submerged wooden casks filled with gun powder. Anchored below the surface of the Gulf of Finland they effectively deterred the British Royal Navy from moving into firing range of St. Petersburg during the Crimean war (1853-1856).
Early Life & Father
Immanuel Nobel was also a pioneer in arms manufacture and in designing steam engines. Successful in his industrial and business ventures, Immanuel Nobel was able, in 1842, to bring his family to St. Petersburg. There, his sons were given a first class education by private teachers. The training included natural sciences, languages and literature. By the age of 17, Alfred Nobel was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics. Alfred’s father, who wanted his sons to join his enterprise as engineers, disliked Alfred’s interest in poetry and found his son rather introverted. In order to widen Alfred’s horizons his father sent him abroad for further training in chemical engineering. During a two year period, Alfred Nobel visited Sweden, Germany, France and the United States. (Schuck p. 113) In Paris, the city he came to like best, he worked in the private laboratory of Professor T.J. Pelouze, a famous chemist. There he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerin, a highly explosive liquid. Nitroglycerin was produced by mixing glycerin with sulfuric and nitric acid. It was considered too dangerous to be of any practical use.(Schuck p. 87) Although its explosive power greatly exceeded that of gun powder, the liquid would explode in a very unpredictable manner if subjected to heat and pressure.
Alfred Nobel became very interested in nitroglycerin and how it could be put to practical use in construction work. He also realized that the safety problems had to be solved and a method had to be developed for the controlled detonation of nitroglycerin. In the United States he visited John Ericsson, the Swedish-American engineer who had developed the screw propeller for ships. In 1852, Alfred Nobel was asked to come back and work in the family enterprise which was booming because of its deliveries to the Russian army. Together with his father he performed experiments to develop nitroglycerin as a commercially and technically useful explosive. As the war ended and conditions changed, Immanuel Nobel was again forced into bankruptcy. Immanuel and two of his sons, Alfred and Emil, left St. Petersburg together and returned to Stockholm. His other two sons, Robert and Ludvig, remained in St. Petersburg. With some difficulties they managed to salvage the family enterprise and then went on to develop the oil industry in the southern part of the Russian empire. They were very successful and became some of the wealthiest persons of their time.
After his return to Sweden in 1863, Alfred Nobel concentrated on developing nitroglycerin as an explosive. Several explosions, including one (1864) in which his brother Emil and several other persons were killed, convinced the authorities that nitroglycerin production was exceedingly dangerous. They forbade further experimentation with nitroglycerin within the Stockholm city limits and Alfred Nobel had to move his experimentation to a barge anchored on Lake Mälaren. Alfred was not discouraged and in 1864 he was able to start mass production of nitroglycerin. To make the handling of nitroglycerin safer Alfred Nobel experimented with different additives. He soon found that mixing nitroglycerin with silica would turn the liquid into a paste which could be shaped into rods of a size and form suitable for insertion into drilling holes. In 1867 he patented this material under the name of dynamite. To be able to detonate the dynamite rods he also invented a detonator (blasting cap) which could be ignited by lighting a fuse. These inventions were made at the same time as the diamond drilling crown and the pneumatic drill came into general use. Together these inventions drastically reduced the cost of blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work. The market for dynamite and detonating caps grew very rapidly and Alfred Nobel also proved himself to be a very skillful entrepreneur and business man.
By 1865 his factory in Krümmel near Hamburg, Germany, was exporting nitroglycerin explosives to other countries in Europe, America and Australia. Over the years he founded factories and laboratories in some 90 different places in more than 20 countries.(Encarta) Although he lived in Paris much of his life he was constantly traveling. Victor Hugo at one time described him as “Europe’s richest vagabond.” When he was not traveling or engaging in business activities Nobel himself worked intensively in his various laboratories, first in Stockholm and later in Hamburg (Germany), Ardeer (Scotland), Paris (France), Karlskoga (Sweden) and San Remo (Italy). He focused on the development of explosives technology as well as other chemical inventions, including such materials as synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk etc. By the time of his death in 1896 he had 355 patents.
Intensive work and travel did not leave much time for a private life. At the age of 43 he was feeling like an old man. At this time 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 most qualified applicant turned out to be an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Kinsky. After working for Nobel for about two months she decided to return to Austria to marry Count Arthur on Suture. In spite of this Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book, titled, “Lay Down Arms” and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. No doubt this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his final will which was to include a Prize for persons or organizations who promoted peace. Several years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von Suttner.
Alfred Nobel’s greatness lay in his ability to combine the penetrating mind of the scientist and inventor with the forward-looking dynamism of the industrialist. Nobel was very interested in social and peace-related issues and held what were considered radical views in his era. He had a great interest in literature and wrote his own poetry and dramatic works. The Nobel Prizes became an extension and a fulfillment of his lifetime interests. Many of the companies founded by Nobel have developed into industrial enterprises that still play a prominent role in the world economy, for example Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), Great Britain, Société Centrale de Dynamite, France, and Dyno Industries in Norway. Toward the end of his life, he acquired the company AB Bofors in Karlskoga, where Björkborn Manor became his Swedish home. Alfred Nobel died in San Remo, Italy, on December 10, 1896. When his will was opened it came as a surprise that his fortune was to be used for Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. The executors of his will were two young engineers, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist. They set about forming the Nobel Foundation as an organization to take care of the financial assets left by Nobel for this purpose and to coordinate the work of the Prize-Awarding Institutions. This was not without its difficulties since the will was contested by relatives and questioned by authorities in various countries. But as we all know, the legacy of Alfred Nobel lives on today. The prizes named after him are still the most coveted prizes for the recipients in their respective fields. Everyone will remember Alfred Nobel as a daring pioneer who knew no limits. Many of the new advanced scientific discoveries made in the last century were surely helped out by the work of Nobel. His Nobel prizes reward people of science and enable them to keep churning out new ways of accomplishing new feats that have never been attempted before
Nobel’s fortune Alfred Nobel’s great wealth can be attributed to his ability to combine the qualities of astute scientist and inventor with those of the far-sighted and dynamic industrialist. Alfred Nobel’s fortune was founded on his inventions. At his death in 1896 he held 355 patents, and it was around these that he had established companies in some ninety locations in twenty countries. Most of Nobel’s capital came from his industrial activities in Great Britain, France, Germany, Sweden and Russia. In his will, Nobel stipulated that the major part of his estate was to be converted into a foundation and invested in “safe” securities. Accordingly, SEK 31.5 million (Corresponding to some SEK 1.5 billion today) was used to establish the Nobel Foundation. The value of Nobel’s original capital has increased in real terms, its market value in 1995 being some SEK 2.3 billion. The Foundation is not connected with the companies around the world which still today bear Nobel’s name.
The Nobel Prizes Experience had taught Alfred Nobel to dislike and distrust lawyers, and late in 1895 he made out his final will without any professional advice or assistance. This will, which replaced two previous ones made in 1889 and 1893, stipulated that the income from his estate, which on his death in 1896 amounted to SEK 33.2 million, should be divided annually into five equal parts and distributed “in the form of prizes to those who during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” He prescribed that the prizes should be distributed as follows:
“One part to the person or persons who shall have made the most important discovery or invention in 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 in the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency, 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 holding and promoting peace congresses.” His will also prescribes that in the distribution of the prizes “no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he is a Scandinavian or not.”
Legally, however, the will did not actually bequeath the estate itself to anyone, and when it was read in January 1897, it was strongly contested by some of his relatives. Furthermore, Nobel had not approached the different institutions concerned to ascertain if they were willing to assume responsibility for awarding the prizes. Politicians criticized the idea on the whole, and King Oskar II of Sweden and Norway was sceptical of it for various reasons. More than three years elapsed before the matter was finally settled, and it was then decided to organize the Nobel Foundation as legatee and administrator of the Nobel fund capital, while the various bodies named in the will agreed to undertake the responsibility of awarding the prizes. A decisive role in securing the final victory by the establishing in 1900 of the Nobel Foundation was played by Nobel’s young collaborator, Ragnar Sohlman, who was named by Nobel Executor of the Will. Sohlman later became the Executive Director of the Foundation.
The Nobel institutions
There are five special Nobel Committees attached to the prize-awarding bodies. Each of these Committees has five members, and each Committee may call upon outside experts for additional advice. The joint administrative body is the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm. The principal task of its Board of Directors is to administer the funds and other properties deriving from Alfred Nobel’s estate.
The process of selection
Those qualified to propose candidates for prizes are: previous Nobel Laureates in their respective fields; members of the prize-awarding bodies and of the Nobel Committees in the relevant spheres; professors in the various fields either at specific universities or those selected through special invitation by the respective prize-awarding bodies; chairmen of representative authors’ organizations (literature); members of certain international parliamentary or legal organizations (peace); members of parliaments and governments (peace). Anyone proposing himself for a Nobel Prize is automatically disqualified. It should be observed that only individuals belonging to these bodies have the right to propose a candidate—not the organization as such. Since neither the Swedish nor the Norwegian authorities have any influence whatsoever on the prize decisions, no official representation or support in favor of a certain candidate is of any avail.
The Committees examine the proposals which have to be at their disposal before February 1, and by early autumn their reports are submitted to the respective prize-awarding bodies. After the merits of the candidates have been discussed, the bodies announce their final decisions in mid-October. All proceedings of the prize-awarding bodies are secret.
The Presentation Ceremonies
The Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and the Prize in Economic Sciences are presented to the laureates by H.M. the King at a ceremony generally held in the Stockholm Concert Hall on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896 at Sanremo, Italy. The Peace Prize presentation takes place on the same day at the Oslo City Hall. Each laureate receives a Nobel Gold Medal and a Nobel Diploma. The prize money, which varies according to the net income of the fund capital, is transferred after December 10 according to the laureate’s wishes. In 1995, the value of the Nobel Prizes was some SEK 7.2 million per prize.
The awards are widely recognized as the world’s highest civic honors. Besides spurring recipients and possible candidates to new efforts, they have served to make scientific and literary achievements, as well as humanitarian contributions, much more widely known than would otherwise have been the case.