While, the Nobel Prize is known throughout the world, the man behind the honor is one of the most clandestine figures. The country of Sweden is synonymous with Volvo and ABBA, but Alfred Nobel, creator of the Nobel Prize is perhaps Sweden’s most endearing commodity.
While, the Nobel Prize is known throughout the world, the man behind the honor is one of the most clandestine figures in popular society. He was a businessman whose inventions helped shape the direction of the industrial age. His death near the turn of the century set the stage for the foundation that his since awarded the prizes bearing his name, bequeathing notoriety to all who claim it.
The Young Life of Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel was born on October 21, 1833 in Stockholm Sweden. His father, Immanuel Nobel, enjoyed a successful engineering career in Sweden building bridges. However, shortly after Alfred was born, industry turned and Immanuel had to look outside of the country for work. In 1837, he moved to St. Petersburg and opened a factory creating equipment for the Russian army.
So successful was his enterprise that Immanuel moved his entire family to Russia in 1842. It was during this time that Alfred enjoyed a private education studying sciences, physics, chemistry, language and literature. By the time he was 17, Alfred was fluent in five languages and excelled in English literature and poetry. To be certain that the youngster would continue in his father’s footsteps, Immanuel sent Alfred to Sweden, Germany, France and finally America to broaden his education.
Alfred Nobel – Entrepreneur and Inventor
While in France, Alfred came in contact with Ascanio Sobrero, a young chemist who had recently invented nitroglycerine, a highly unpredictably explosive. In 1863, with the insight that this new chemical could aide in his father’s business, Alfred returned to Sweden and began studying ways to manipulate the product into a more usable form. Undaunted by several factory explosions, including one that took the life of his brother, Nobel experimented with many different additives to stabilize nitroglycerine. He came up with a mixture of gunpowder and nitroglycerine that was substantially more explosive than just ordinary gunpowder. For this “blasting oil”, he received his first paten. He was thirty years old.
While studying in America in 1866, his factory in German exploded and he immediately returned to undertake the task of rebuilding. It was in Germany that Nobel discovered a type of sand known as kieselguhr. This sand was porous and absorbent and when mixed with nitroglycerine, it became a paste that could be manipulated into various shapes. Nobel thought to form the paste into small rods and insert a fuse that could be used to generate the explosion in a controlled environment. The next year he was granted a patent for dynamite and the following year he and his father received the Letterstedt Prize for the “important discoveries of practical value to humanity”.
His experiments continued and by the age of forty, he was the wealthy owner of a worldwide empire. He was also an accomplished poet and loved to read fiction as well as philosophy. A self-described hermit and a loner, he was committed to his work and over the course of his lifetime was awarded more than 350 patents. Yet throughout his life, he was constantly undermined by unethical business partners and bad publicity, mostly due to his factory explosions. Around 1876, he began a relationship with Bertha von Sutter that continued for many years. Although the two never married, it was perhaps her own work against the increasing arms race that became the greatest influence on Alfred in promoting peace. Behind the skilled entrepreneur was a man with a very human side.
Alfred Nobel creates the Nobel Prize
Alfred Nobel died a wealthy, but lonely man in 1896. Although he controlled an immense fortune, his will was written on one piece of paper. In that will, he wrote that his entire estate should be used to “endow prizes to those who, during the proceeding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” To this day, the Nobel Prize is awarded for achievements in economics, chemistry, medicine, physics, literature, and for work in peace. The award ceremony is held each year in Sweden on December 10th, the anniversary of his death.