Alfred Nobel Biography (1833-1896)

inventor, industrialist, and philanthropist

Owner of more than 350 patented inventions during his lifetime, Nobel is bestknown as the discoverer of dynamite and the man who upon his death bequeathed much of his large estate to support the annual Nobel Prizes for accomplishments in physics, chemistry, economics, science and medicine, literature, andthe promotion of peace.

Born in Stockholm, Nobel received his education from private tutors and fromvarious apprenticeships. Like his father, a manufacturer of mines and other explosives, Nobel displayed an avid interest in engineering and chemistry andas a young man worked for a time in the laboratory of French chemist Théophile Jules Pelouze (1807-1867), who is regarded by some as the inventor of guncotton (most accord the honor to Christian Schönbein). After extensive travels, through which he acquired the sharp skills of a businessman andthe distinct advantages of a multilinguist, Nobel returned to Sweden in 1863for the singular purpose of safely manufacturing nitroglycerin.

Almost two decades earlier, Ascanio Sobrero (1812-1888) had invented this oily liquid, but it proved so volatile as to preclude its widespread use. Instead, gunpowder and guncotton dominated the explosives industry, despite their own shortcomings. Through his own studies and experiments, begun as early as 1859, Nobel had familiarized himself with Sobrero's compound of glycerine treated with nitric acid, and had even exploded small quantities of it under water. Sharing his interest, his father during this same time designed a method for the large-scale production of the explosive. In Nobel's mind, all that remained was to devise a special blasting charge to ensure a predictable detonation of the nitroglycerine by shock rather than heat, which he already knew tobe a dangerously imperfect firing method. The result was Nobel's first important invention, the mercury fulminate cap.

A fatal factory accident the following year, in which Nobel's brother Emil was killed, led the inventor to continue his research with nitroglycerine, thistime in the hope of discovering a benign substance to absorb the liquid explosive, thereby making it safe for manipulation and transportation, without seriously diminishing its eruptive characteristics. After exhaustive experimentation, Nobel found a nearly perfect substance, kieselguhr. When saturated with nitroglycerine, this porous clay became a highly desirable explosive, whichNobel termed dynamite and patented in 1867.

Virtually overnight, dynamite revolutionized the mining industry, for it wasfive times as powerful as gunpowder, relatively easy to produce, and reasonably safe to use. Nobel acquired a vast fortune from this invention, which spawned an intricate network of factories, sales representatives, and distributors in several industrialized countries around the world. Despite the enormousdemands of his business ventures, which required that he travel almost continuously and engage repeatedly in legal battles, Nobel persevered with his scientific research. Less than satisfied with the qualities of kieselguhr,which occasionally leaked nitroglycerine as well as somewhat reduced the liquid's power, he began experimenting with nitroglycerine and collodion, a lownitrogen form of guncotton. He found that these two substances formed a gelatinous mass which, with modifications, possessed a high resistance to water and an explosive force greater than that of dynamite. The invention, perfectedin 1875, became known by a variety of names, including blasting gelatin, Nobel's Extra Dynamite, saxonite, and gelignite.

One of Nobel's last significant discoveries was closely related to his work with blasting gelatin. Like a number of other inventors, Nobel was in search of a smokeless powder to replace gunpowder. In 1888 he introduced ballistite,a mixture of nitroglycerine, guncotton, and camphor which could be cut into flakes and used as a propellant; the substance was particularly valuable for its ability to burn ferociously without exploding. A year later, two British scientists invented a smokeless powder based on ballistite called cordite. ToNobel, the invention represented an infringement on his patent; his suit to recover damages, however, was unsuccessful.

Nobel died in 1896 but despite his long and successful career developing andmanufacturing explosives he was a devoted humanitarian who wished to aid efforts that might bring about lasting peace as well as beneficial advancements in technology. To this end he composed a handwritten will which, though problematic and fiercely contested, led to the creation of the Nobel Foundation, which grants monetary prizes for contributions to scientific research and efforts toward world peace. The first prizes were awarded in 1901 and the tradition continues today.

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