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Alfred Nobel


Alfred Nobel
Few scientists have left a legacy more noble than Alfred Nobel. This Swedish chemist not only invented dynamite, but also urged other scientists to explore new avenues of study by establishing the world’s most prestigious accolade for intellectual achievement: the Nobel prize.

Since the award was founded in 1901, the greatest minds have been rewarded for their services to the advancement of science and other arts. This peer-assessed award, Nobel hoped, would inspire people to push the boundaries for the benefit of humanity. Past winners include such geniuses as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Alexander Fleming.
Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on 21 October 1833 to Immanuel and Andriette. His mechanical engineer father enjoyed varying degrees of success with a number of inventing and manufacturing business ventures. In 1837, however, Immanuel left in search of better fortune in Russia. By 1842 he had established a profitable business producing equipment for the Russian military, and so the rest of the Nobel family moved out to join him.
Together with his three brothers РRobert, Ludwig and Emil РAlfred was home-educated by private tutors. Taking a cue from his entrepreneurial father, who also designed and made mines, Alfred developed a talent for chemistry Рand explosives in particular. In 1850 Alfred travelled to Paris to study chemistry under French professor Th̩ophile- Jules Pelouze, who had been carrying out experiments using concentrated nitric acid to develop explosive materials in his laboratory.
On his return to Russia Nobel began working in his father’s factory manufacturing military equipment for the Crimean War. Once the conflict was over in 1856, however, the company struggled to turn a profit and, by 1859, the firm had gone bust, forcing the Nobels to return to Sweden. Alfred’s two elder brothers, Robert and Ludwig, remained in Russia with hopes of salvaging what was left of the business.
Alfred, meanwhile, started experimenting with explosives in his father’s lab. By 1862 he had set up a small factory in which he began to manufacture an exciting but highly volatile explosive called nitroglycerin, which had recently been invented by another of Pelouze’s students: Ascanio Sobrero. While Nobel recognised the industrial potential of this explosive, the use of nitroglycerin was just not practical due to its unstable nature. The challenge was to find a way to control nitroglycerin so it could be safely handled.
Nobel spent many years perfecting the formula for his explosives, as well as inventing and developing detonation devices. Eventually his research led him to discover a way to make nitroglycerin stable and practical for the construction and mining industries. This development was the invention of dynamite (see ‘The big idea’ boxout), for which Nobel obtained the patent in 1867. With a commercial product on his hands, Nobel became a wealthy man at the heart of a brand-new industry. He established some 16 factories for producing explosives in almost as many countries.
Nobel died aged 63 at his home in San Remo, Italy. Without the help of a lawyer, a year before his death Nobel had signed his last will and testament. In it he passed much of his wealth to the establishment of an annual prize that he hoped would stimulate scientific progress. He wrote: ‘The whole of my remaining realisable 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.’

Alfred Nobel