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Alfred Nobel

[noh-bel]
(21 October 1833, Stockholm, Sweden – 10 December 1896, Sanremo, Italy) was a Swedish chemist, engineer, innovator, armaments manufacturer and the inventor of dynamite. He owned Bofors, a major armaments manufacturer, which he had redirected from its previous role as an iron and steel mill. In his last will, he used his enormous fortune to institute the Nobel Prizes. The synthetic element nobelium was named after him.

Personal background

Nobel was the third son of Immanuel Nobel (1801-1872) and Andriette Ahlsell Nobel (1805-1889). Born in Stockholm on 21 October 1833, he went with his family in 1842 to Saint Petersburg, where his father (who had invented modern plywood) started a "torpedo" works. Alfred studied chemistry with Professor Nikolay Nikolaevich Zinin. In 1859, the factory was left to the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831-1888), who greatly enlarged it. 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 nitroglycerine (discovered in 1847 by Ascanio Sobrero, one of his fellow students under Théophile-Jules Pelouze at the University of Torino). Several explosions occurred at their family-owned factory in Heleneborg; one disastrous one killed Alfred's younger brother Emil and several other workers in 1864.

The foundations of the Nobel Prize were laid in 1895 when Alfred Nobel wrote his last will, leaving much of his wealth for its establishment. Since 1901, the prize has honored men and women for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and for work in peace.

Though Nobel remained unmarried, his biographers note that he had at least three loves. Nobel's first love was in Russia with a girl named Alexandra, who rejected his proposal. In 1876 Bertha Kinsky became Alfred Nobel's secretary but after only a brief stay left him to marry her old flame, Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner. Though her personal contact with Alfred Nobel had been brief, she corresponded with him until his death in 1896, and it is believed that she was a major influence in his decision to include a peace prize among those prizes provided in his will. Bertha von Suttner was awarded the 1905 Nobel Peace prize, 'for her sincere peace activities'.

Nobel's third and long-lasting love was with a flower girl named Sofie Hess, also from Vienna. This liaison lasted for 18 years and in many of the exchanged letters, Nobel addressed his love as 'Madame Sofie Nobel'. After his death, according to his biographers - Evlanoff and Flour, and Fant - Nobel's letters were locked within the Nobel Institute in Stockholm and became the best kept secret of the time.They were only released in 1955, to be included with the biographical data of Nobel.

Sri Kantha has suggested that ' the one personal trait of Nobel that helped him to sharpen his creativity include his talent for information access, via his multi-lingual skills. Despite the lack of formal secondary and tertiary level education, Nobel gained proficiency in six languages, Swedish, French, Russian, English, German and Italian. He also developed literary skills to write poetry in English.' His Nemesis, a prose tragedy in four acts about Beatrice Cenci, partly inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci, was printed while he was dying. The entire stock except for 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 been translated to Slovenian via the Esperanto version.

Alfred Nobel is buried in Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.

Dynamite

Nobel found that when nitroglycerin was incorporated in an absorbent inert substance like kieselguhr (diatomaceous earth) it became safer and more convenient to handle, and this mixture he patented in 1867 as dynamite. Nobel demonstrated his explosive for the first time that year, at a quarry in Redhill, Surrey, England.

Nobel later on combined nitroglycerin with another explosive, gun-cotton, and obtained a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was a more powerful explosive than dynamite. Gelignite, or blasting gelatin as it was branded, was patented in 1876, and was followed by a host of similar combinations, modified by the addition of potassium nitrate and various other substances.

The Prizes

The erroneous publication in 1888 of a premature obituary of Nobel by a French newspaper, condemning him for his invention of dynamite, is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated Le marchand de la mort est mort ("The merchant of death is dead") and went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." On 27 November 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. He died of a stroke on 10 December 1896 at Sanremo, Italy. He left 31 million kronor to fund the prizes (what would be hundreds of millions of today's US dollars).

The first three of these prizes are awarded for eminence in physical science, chemistry and medical science or physiology; the fourth is for 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 fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.

The formulation about the literary prize, "in an ideal direction" (i idealisk riktning in Swedish), is cryptic and has caused much confusion. For many years, the Swedish Academy interpreted "ideal" as "idealistic" (idealistisk) and used it as a pretext to not give the prize to important but less romantic authors, such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Leo Tolstoy. This interpretation has since been revised, and the prize has been awarded to, for example, Dario Fo and José Saramago, who definitely do not belong to the camp of literary idealism.

There was also quite a lot of room for interpretation by the bodies he had named for deciding on the physical sciences and chemistry prizes, given that he had not consulted them before making the will. In his one-page testament, he stipulated that the money go to discoveries or inventions in the physical sciences and to discoveries or improvements in chemistry. He had opened the door to technological awards, but had not left instructions on how to deal with the distinction between science and technology. Since the deciding bodies he had chosen were more concerned with the former, it is not surprising that the prizes went to scientists and not to engineers, technicians or other inventors. In a sense, the technological prizes announced recently by the World Technology Network (not funded by the Nobel foundation) indirectly fill this gap.

In 2001, his great-grandnephew, Peter, asked the Bank of Sweden to differentiate its award to economists given "in Alfred Nobel's memory" from the five other awards. This has caused much controversy whether the prize for Economics is actually a "Nobel Prize" (see Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).

Notes

References

  • 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nobel, Alfred Bernhard in 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  • Schück, H, and Sohlman, R., (1929). The Life of Alfred Nobel. London: William Heineman Ltd.
  • U.S. Patent 78317, dated 26 May 1868
  • Evlanoff, M. and Fluor, M. Alfred Nobel - The Loneliest Millionaire. Los Angeles, Ward Ritchie Press, 1969.
  • Sohlman, R. The Legacy of Alfred Nobel, transl. Schubert E. London: The Bodley Head, 1983 (Swedish original, Ett Testamente, published in 1950).
  • Fant, K. Alfred Nobel - A Biography, transl. Ruuth M. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993.
  • Jorpes, J.E. Alfred Nobel. British Medical Journal, Jan.3, 1959, 1(5113): 1-6.
  • Sri Kantha, S. Alfred Nobel's unusual creativity; an analysis. Medical Hypotheses, April 1999; 53(4): 338-344.
  • Sri Kantha, S. Could nitroglycerine poisoning be the cause of Alfred Nobel's anginal pains and premature death? Medical Hypotheses, 1997; 49: 303-306.

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