Alfred Nobel


Alfred Bernhard Nobel listen to the pronunciation? (21 October 1833 Stockholm, Sweden – 10 December 1896 Sanremo, Italy) was a Swedish chemist, engineer and inventor of dynamite. In his will, he left his estate to a foundation for the Nobel Prizes.

Alfred Nobel is also known for his inventions and his success as a businessman. Nobel was instrumental in creating an international dynamite empire and was a major influence in the Caucasian oil industry. He amassed a very large fortune during his lifetime and was one of the richest men in the world at the time of his death.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born on 21 October 1833 in Stockholm. He had previously had two brothers, Robert (1829) and Ludvig (1831). Alfred was followed by Emil (1843). His father Immanuel Nobel and mother Andriette (née Ahlsell) had married in 1827.

Dad”s business

Alfred was born in the midst of the Nobel family”s poor economic situation. His father was a popular builder whose contracts had previously kept the Nobel family”s finances stable. However, Immanuel was forced into bankruptcy after the failure of a number of contracts and the burning of the house the Nobels had bought from Långholmen on New Year”s Eve 1832.

But Immanuel was still waiting for his chance. The Swedish military authorities were not interested in Nobel”s new inventions, but he eventually found a suitable partner. At the urging of Lars Gabriel von Haartman, the Finnish ambassador to Russia in Stockholm, Nobel left his family in Sweden and moved to Turku to develop his invention of polycuminescence to offer it to the Russian Imperial Army.

Family in Stockholm

After Immanuel left for Turku in 1837, the rest of the family had to survive without his help. During his first year in Turku, Immanuel managed to send the family enough money to enable his wife Andriette to open a small dairy and vegetable shop. The family”s children Robert, Louis and Alfred helped their mother by selling matches on the street. Despite their modest circumstances, Andriette wanted her children to receive a good education, so they each took turns enrolling in the school run by Jacob”s parish. Of the brothers, Alfred dropped out after only a year, Robert attended school for three and a half years and Louis for three. The eldest brother Robert left school in 1841 to become a sailor and was offered a job as a cabin steward on a ship bound for South America.

St Petersburg

Immanuel Nobel, who moved from Turku to St Petersburg in 1838, had done well. He had managed to convince the Russian military authorities and Emperor Nicholas I himself of the usefulness of landmines. Nobel, who had received a reward of 3,000 silver rubles, had expanded his experimental mine factory and in 1842 he decided to invite his family to St Petersburg. At this time, St Petersburg was one of the world”s metropolises, both in terms of science and culture.

By the time the family arrived in St Petersburg, Immanuel had received as much as 25,000 silver rubles from Tsar Nicholas, mostly for a successful blasting demonstration. Immanuel Nobel”s business prospered, and he owned a valuable apartment in St Petersburg. Although there were several good schools for immigrants in the city, Alfred and Louis were not placed in any school, but were hired a private tutor. The brothers received a full education in literature, languages, mathematics, philosophy and science. Not much is known about the content of the private tuition, but it proved effective. Alfred and Louis and Robert, who returned from the sea, were able to speak and write not only their mother tongue, Swedish, but also Russian, French, English and German.

In the 1840s, Immanuel Nobel was doing well. Nobel was able to redeem his partner”s share and at the same time relocate his business while significantly expanding his premises. The company name was also changed to Fondieres et Atélieres Mécaniques, Nobel & Fils (“Foundry and Mechanical Engineering Works, Nobel & Sons”). From the second half of the 1840s, Immanuel”s children were able to work under their father. Each of the sons was first employed in the drawing office, then transferred to the ordering and quotation department, as foreman in manufacturing and as assistant to the company”s managers in financial matters.

At the age of 18, Alfred Nobel showed a clear interest in classical literature and poetry. At a young age, he wrote a 425-line poem in English, which can be seen as a testament to his literary talent. Nobel might also have had the potential to become a writer or a poet, but he chose a different career.

Although it is not known exactly who taught the Nobel brothers humanities in St Petersburg, it is fairly well known who taught them science privately. The brothers” teachers were chemistry professors Nikolai Zinin and Yuli Trapp, whom Immanuel Nobel knew personally and with whom he was also on good terms. They taught Alfred Nobel and his brothers chemistry, physics and mathematics. Alfred was particularly fascinated by experimental chemistry, which was his favourite subject. Around 1850, Alfred Nobel and his teacher Zinin were taken to Paris, where he studied for a year. It was here that Nobel met Théophile-Jules Pelouze, one of the most important European chemists of the time. For Alfred Nobel, a year in France marked the completion of his chemistry studies. In addition to his studies, Nobel also took part in the social life of Paris and met a ”girl he loved”, as he himself writes. However, he was forced to return to St Petersburg.

Alfred Nobel did not stay long in St Petersburg, but decided to go on a long study trip abroad. His first destinations were in Central Europe and Britain. During his trip, Nobel visited a number of industrial companies with which the Nobel Engineering Works in St Petersburg had links. The primary purpose of the trip was to familiarise the young Alfred Nobel with the methods used in the machine shops of the various countries. He was also tasked with identifying product and process innovations that would benefit the family business. After travelling in Europe for some time, Alfred Nobel moved to New York in the United States. The details of Nobel”s trip to America are not known exactly, but he is known to have visited John Ericsson of Sweden on a few occasions. As a result of his trip, Alfred Nobel, among other things, sent to St Petersburg the drawings of the hot-air machine he had received from Ericsson.

Back to St Petersburg and first contact with nitroglycerine

Alfred Nobel returned to St Petersburg on 21 October 1854, when he was 21 years old. The strain of his travels had forced him to spend some time in a nursing home in Germany. On his way to Germany, he had also spent some time with his uncle. After a few months, however, he returned to St Petersburg.

The Nobel family earned well, as the Russian emperor, preparing for the Crimean War, ordered a lot of new military equipment. The family business employed over a thousand men and produced well. Alfred Nobel”s father, Immanuel, came into favour with the Tsar and was soon considered one of Russia”s best engineers. He was awarded the prestigious Imperial Gold Medal.

Emperor Nicholas I died during the Crimean War, and was succeeded by Alexander II. Russia was not successful in the war, and its supplies of military equipment were poorly managed. The troops who served in the Crimean War had been supplied with marching shoes with paper soles and flour mixed with gunpowder. Alexander II dismissed the officials involved. Although the Nobels had nothing to do with the matter, they ran out of orders because the officials who placed the orders had been dismissed. Immanuel Nobel tried to get new customers for the family business, but it was difficult because the state had been impoverished by the war. Alfred Nobel had become the family”s financial expert and was sent to London and Paris to obtain loans, but the banks there were unable to lend to the Nobel company.

In the summer of 1859, Immanuel Nobel decided to leave St Petersburg and return to Stockholm. He left the running of his engineering business to his son Louis, who was assisted by Alfred and Robert. The brothers succeeded in winding up the business, and Ludvig also set up his own company. Robert and Alfred had rented a small apartment together. Alfred Nobel spent a lot of time in the kitchen of the apartment, which he had converted into his laboratory. When the family business was in financial crisis, he had looked to his friends for new ideas for revolutionary products. He had heard from his former private tutors about a new explosive, nitroglycerine. The new explosive was very explosive, but difficult to detonate. The situation was complicated by the fact that the substance exploded easily during manufacture and was therefore considered too dangerous for practical use. Alfred immediately saw the potential of the substance if it could be made safer.

After several dangerous experiments, Alfred Nobel figured out how to make enough nitroglycerine for practical experiments. The next problem was to make nitroglycerine explode in a controlled way. Eventually Alfred and Robert came up with the idea of mixing ordinary black powder with nitroglycerine and detonating it with a simple fuse. Louis also became interested in the possibilities of nitroglycerine at this stage, and the brothers carried out experimental detonations outside St Petersburg. At his father”s urging, Alfred patented nitroglycerine and was granted a Swedish patent on 14 December 1863, the same year he moved to Stockholm to join his father.

In Sweden, new patents for explosives technology were rare, which is why the military authorities were interested in Nobel patents. Immanuel and Alfred Nobel were invited to the military authorities to talk about the invention. They were given the task of organising a blasting demonstration at Karlsborg Fortress. A military commission and several civilian experts came to see the demonstration. At first, the results were poor, as the Nobel Prize-winning nitroglycerine charges exploded with about the same power as the same amount of black powder. During the demonstration, however, Alfred Nobel realised that the explosive power of the charges gradually decreased as the nitroglycerine was absorbed into the gunpowder. For the show, the Nobels had made several different mixtures of nitroglycerine, which, when out of date, did not cause large explosions. Alfred managed to correct the problem during the presentation, so he was able to detonate a batch of nitroglycerine made within a few hours at the end of the presentation. The explosion was huge but did not have the desired effect on the Swedish military authorities. They unanimously declared the substance too dangerous for use in war.

Studies on nitroglycerin

A demonstration in Karlsberg showed that a mixture of gunpowder and nitroglycerine does not produce permanent properties. So the Nobels returned to the laboratory to continue developing the explosive. Alfred worked diligently on the research, assisted by his youngest brother, 20-year-old Emil. Alfred soon came up with a solution. He loaded a test tube with gunpowder, inserted a fuse and dipped it into a container of nitroglycerine. The explosions were a success. The test tube used in the experiment became the prototype for the detonating cord that many explosives experts today still regard as Alfred Nobel”s most important invention.

In the spring of 1864, Alfred Nobel set out to find customers for a new explosive. Marketed as an explosive oil, it soon found customers in the mining industry. Nobel presented his invention to several people, which meant that he needed more and more explosives. The old method of producing nitroglycerine he had invented was replaced by a new one. This allowed more nitroglycerine to be produced, although the new method made the process more dangerous.

There were many ways to exploit Nobel”s products, but before they could be widely exploited, Alfred Nobel needed money, as he had to buy equipment and raw materials and patent the invention abroad. The Nobel family did not have enough capital to offer Alfred, so he had to resort to borrowing. Alfred Nobel benefited from his study trip to Central Europe, during which he had established contacts with banks. He travelled to France and managed to obtain a loan of CHF 100 000 from the Crédit Mobilier bank in Paris.

From a bad start to success

On his return to Stockholm, Alfred Nobel started to increase production. The laboratory became suitable as a factory. Alfred was helped by his father Immanuel and brother Emil, who hired a young, newly qualified engineer, C. E. Hertzman, and a few assistants. Emil installed the new equipment and the experiments could begin.

On 3 September 1864, the Nobel laboratory exploded into pieces, and the blast was felt throughout Stockholm. When it happened, Emil Nobel and Hertzman were testing nitriding equipment. Probably due to their carelessness, the nitroglycerine heated up to over 180 degrees Celsius, causing it to explode spontaneously. The explosion immediately killed Emil Nobel, Hertzman, the worker Herman Nord, the assistant Maria Nordstedt and the carpenter working in the yard. When the explosion occurred, Alfred Nobel was in another building talking to an acquaintance. Nobel fell to the ground from the force of the explosion and was injured by shrapnel from a broken window, but survived. Immanuel Nobel was also far enough away when the explosion occurred and survived without physical injuries, but a month later he suffered a paralytic seizure, which may have been the result of the shock of the explosion.

The accident did not shake Alfred Nobel”s faith in the potential of nitroglycerine. Orders kept coming in, and Nobel was already planning to set up a company. On 22 October, the shareholders formed a company called Nitroglycerin Aktiebolaget. Alfred sold the patent for nitroglycerin to the company and received SEK 100,000 and shares in the company. The company was set up quickly, but production was slow to start. Due to an explosion accident, the Stockholm police banned the production of nitroglycerine in the city. Nor was a site for a laboratory outside the city, which eventually had to be built on a rented barge. During the winter of 1864-1865, Nobel worked hard to get nitroglycerine production up and running while marketing the substance to mining companies. Customers appeared, but nitroglycerine was still very difficult to produce. There was nowhere to find a site for a factory, so all production had to be done in a barge that moved around and was very cold in winter. At the end of January, a plot of land was finally found and bought by the Nobel company. It was an old farm, and all the equipment needed to produce nitroglycerine was hastily moved into the barn. The production buildings were sketched out, after which Alfred Nobel left the future factory to his business partners and travelled to Germany.

On 25 June 1865, a nitroglycerine company was also established in Norway. Alfred Nobel sold his Norwegian patent to this company for 10 000 silver talers. The transaction was the only one in which he exchanged his patent for cash only, but now he was in need of cash for a planned factory in Germany.

Nobel settled in Hamburg and set up a small laboratory in the city”s harbour, where he could produce enough nitroglycerine for demonstrations. Many miners became interested in Nobel”s invention, and articles about nitroglycerine were published in several foreign journals. In June 1865, around the same time Alfred Nobel sold his patent in Norway, the German nitroglycerine company Alfred Nobel & Co. Like Sweden, Germany was unwilling to give up land to set up an explosives factory. It was not until October 1865 that the company succeeded in acquiring land for its factory in Geesthacht. Production of nitroglycerine could not start until 1 April 1866.

In 1865, Nobel was summoned to the US Consulate in Hamburg for a hearing. The reason was the claim against Nobel that a way to detonate nitroglycerine in a controlled manner had been invented earlier in the United States. This claim was based on Nobel”s patent application in the United States and on a man named Taliaferro Shaffner, who had tried to buy Nobel”s invention for a song and dance in 1864. Angered by Nobel”s refusal, Shaffner had tried industrial espionage, but failed. After hearing that Nobel was seeking a patent for his invention in the US, Shaffner claimed to have made the invention before Nobel. However, Nobel succeeded in proving that he had invented first, so Shaffner”s objection was rejected and Nobel was granted a patent for his invention in the US as well.

In 1866, Nobel tried to create a demand for nitroglycerine in the British Isles, but the results were poor. Although Nobel”s demonstrations attracted people and the mining industry, Nobel could not find shareholders to set up a company. After failing in Britain, Nobel decided to start marketing his invention, known as blasting oil, in the United States.

Alfred Nobel and his inventions in the United States

In the United States, Alfred Nobel faced problems. There had been two major nitroglycerine explosions in the country, which made headlines in the newspapers. In Washington, a law was already being drafted to ban the use of nitroglycerine. So Nobel decided to travel to Washington, where he met politicians who were in favour of the bill. However, the meetings did not lead to the desired results, as Congress decided to pass the law. Before the bill was passed, Nobel travelled back to New York, where he staged a blasting demonstration with nitroglycerine. The reception was mixed. Newspaper opinion pieces urged Nobel to return to Europe and called him a fraud. Nobel was also warned that he would get into trouble with the authorities after the law banning nitroglycerine came into force.

Nobel”s faith in the safety of nitroglycerine, the explosive oil, was shaken when he learned that the nitroglycerine that exploded in at least one other nitroglycerine explosion in the United States had come from his own factories in Europe. Nobel therefore set about devising ways to make nitroglycerine safer.

Nobel was helped by an unexpected person, Taliaferro Shaffner, who had previously tried to prevent Nobel from obtaining a patent for his invention in the United States. Shaffner offered to help Nobel set up an American nitroglycerin company and also agreed to negotiate with politicians to pass a law banning nitroglycerin. Nobel and Shaffner travelled to Washington. Despite the poor results, Nobel changed his attitude towards Shaffner and began negotiating with him to set up a company. During the negotiations, Nobel learned that his company”s nitroglycerine plant in Germany had exploded. On hearing this, Nobel tried to rush negotiations with Shaffner to set up the company. In the end, Nobel gave Shaffner the US patent for his invention in exchange for a formal payment of one dollar, although he also received 2 500 shares in the company. At the same time, Congress finally passed a law banning the use of nitroglycerin, although it did allow the transport of nitroglycerin if it was packaged in containers with appropriate warning labels. However, nitroglycerin was not fully criminalised, which allowed the establishment of a nitroglycerin company on 27 July 1866. Nobel decided to return to Germany as soon as possible, and on 10 August he landed in Hamburg.

Invention of dynamite

Back in Germany, Nobel needed a laboratory to continue his research to make nitroglycerin safer. The exploded factory was rebuilt when Nobel arrived in Hamburg, but the laboratory, destroyed in the explosion, was unusable. Nobel therefore hired a barge to serve as his laboratory and immediately started his research.

In his experiments, Nobel found that nitroglycerin was absorbed into the crushed charcoal, although the mixture was not permanent. He knew he needed something that would absorb the nitroglycerin and hold it. After trying wood flour, sawdust, masonry mortar and crushed brick, Nobel decided to try the experiment with milk. Nobel dried the sand in a kiln, after which it was able to absorb about three times its own volume of nitroglycerine. The mixture of these became a malleable mass, which Nobel managed to explode. Nobel used the mass to form rods, which proved to be particularly safe.

In the autumn of 1866, Nobel tested his invention several times and found that he had invented a safe and effective explosive. Nobel”s assistant and collaborator Thomas Winkler suggested naming the new explosive “explosion-kite”, but Nobel himself preferred the name “dynamite”. The new explosive was not only five to eight times more powerful than black powder, but also much safer than nitroglycerine. After more than a decade of research, Alfred Nobel had found a way to make nitroglycerine less dangerous without radically reducing its explosive power.

There are stories about the invention of dynamite, some of which claim that Alfred Nobel did not invent dynamite himself. According to one story, a worker at a factory in Nobel”s German company noticed how nitroglycerine leaking from shipping crates was being absorbed into the milk, producing a porridge-like substance. The driver is said to have drawn Nobel”s attention to the phenomenon. According to another story, Nobel was visiting a mine manager and was told by the manager that mixing nitroglycerine with finely ground rock would make the substance safer to handle. The story goes that when Nobel returned to his laboratory, he wanted to test the mine manager”s theory, but he didn”t have the ground rock to hand at the time. According to the story, Nobel decided to try replacing the stone with sand, and that”s how dynamite was born.

Carl Dittmar, the man who led the construction of the Nobel factory, claimed in Nobel”s lifetime to have invented dynamite before him. Dittmar claimed to have suggested to Nobel that he try mixing kieselguhr with nitroglycerine, and that he was the real inventor of dynamite. Nobel sued Dittmar and, after a long trial, won.

On the occasion of the centenary of the invention of dynamite, a Soviet journal of applied chemistry published its own version of the invention of dynamite. According to the article, dynamite was originally invented by a Russian colonel. In 1866, Alfred Nobel saw the news in a technical publication and used it as the basis for his patent application.

Nobel marketing dynamite

Like many of his other inventions, Nobel presented the dynamite by organising an explosion show in the presence of the press. The new and safe explosive was in great demand, and Nobel”s German factory received many enquiries about the new invention. Alfred Nobel”s plans for an effective and safe explosive had been realised and it was time to start marketing the new invention.

In the spring of 1867, Nobel travelled to Britain. In May that year, he received a British patent for his invention. In the summer, Nobel organised blasting demonstrations, where he succeeded in proving the advantages of dynamite. The explosive was extremely safe, effective and did not give off the same pungent smoke as black powder. The properties of dynamite were immediately noticed and the Nobel dynamite demonstrations were described in detail in several journals. Nobel”s aim was to establish a dynamite factory in Britain, especially as the German and Swedish factories were no longer able to meet the increasing demand for dynamite.

By the time Nobel arrived in Britain, Parliament had passed a law requiring all shipments containing nitroglycerine to be labelled “extremely dangerous”. The law also applied to explosives in which nitroglycerine was a component. Thus, shipments containing Nobel dynamite also had to be labelled with a warning label. It was precisely because of this section of the law that Nobel had difficulty finding partners in Britain. In the autumn of 1867, Nobel tried to convince Parliament of the differences between nitroglycerine and dynamite, but the law was not repealed. The opposition Nobel encountered in Britain was the reason he tried to find other markets and went on a tour of Europe. He visited Prague, Vienna, Zurich and Bern to make contacts for the future. After his tour, Nobel returned to the British Isles, where he began planning to build a factory in Scotland. Even there, setting up the company seemed difficult and slow. It was not until 1869 that Scotland became seriously interested in the domestic manufacture of dynamite. However, enthusiasm soon died down as Parliament passed The Nitro-Glycerine Act, which banned the importation and manufacture of all substances containing nitroglycerine. However, there was a provision in the Act which allowed the Home Office to grant exemptions to certain entities. Nobel applied for this authorisation. The Ministry of the Interior”s only option was to allow the production of dynamite to begin at the blasting site. The idea was unrealistic and did not materialise.

Nobel soon found out that Sir Frederick Abel, the chief chemist at the Home Office, was behind the law. Nobel”s dynamite was a fierce competitor to the cotton gin made by a process patented by Abel, and it was therefore in Abel”s interest to slow down the arrival of dynamite on the British market. In the spring of 1870, Nobel wrote a letter to the Home Secretary clearly demonstrating the safety of dynamite. Nobel cited the fact that 560 tonnes of dynamite had already been produced in the world and that there had not been a single accident in its storage or transport. The letter was effective, because in April of that year dynamite was granted a special exemption from nitroglycerine. This decision finally allowed Nobel to set up a dynamite company in Britain. Nobel received 300 shares in the new company as founder and 900 as compensation for the dynamite patent, giving him half the company.

Although Nobel was very busy working to build a dynamite factory in Britain, he sent others abroad to set up factories on his behalf. Nobel corresponded closely with them, planning to increase the market and sales of dynamite.

The problem with setting up a dynamite factory in France was that the state had a monopoly on the gunpowder industry. For years, the Nobel Liaisons were unable to obtain permission to import dynamite, so all shipments of dynamite sent by Nobel were confiscated at customs. While Nobel was marketing dynamite in Britain, he was also negotiating in France to form a company. Nobel”s French partner, Paul Barbe, wrote to the French government to appeal directly, but the war declared against Prussia delayed the application. After the war, the need for a new and effective explosive was recognised in France, and Nobel”s partner was authorised to start large-scale production of dynamite. For a while, France produced a lot of dynamite, but in 1871 the production of explosives was banned. This was due to a law prohibiting the manufacture and marketing of explosives, which had been enacted in the same year.

Nobel and his partner Barbe lodged an objection. Barbe, in particular, was active in promoting the resumption of dynamite production. At the beginning of 1872, the French War Ministry cancelled all its contracts with Nobel and Barbe and started to manufacture dynamite itself, although Nobel”s patent was still valid. Nobel believed that the French government had secretly expropriated his patent without informing him. However, it turned out that Nobel”s French patent agent had forgotten to pay the annual patent fee. This oversight had rendered Nobel”s French dynamite patent worthless.

The police were soon ordered to confiscate all dynamite that was not produced by the state. The situation looked bad for Nobel and Barbe, but the problem was solved. When it emerged that a law had already been passed prohibiting the state monopoly from selling gunpowder at prices above the production price, public opinion in France, impoverished by war reparations, turned against the gunpowder monopoly, and a political dispute erupted over the monopoly”s position. After many stages, it was decided to exclude dynamite and all other nitroglycerine-based explosives from the monopoly. Thus, Nobel and Barbe were finally able to set up a dynamite company. In 1875, the Société Générale de la Fabrication de la Dynamite was founded.

Nobel had an early interest in the Italian and Swiss markets, as both countries had a number of large-scale public works projects. There was a strong demand for an efficient and safe explosive for the construction of bridges, harbours, railways and tunnels. In 1871, Nobel applied for a patent for dynamite in Italy, which he obtained in December that year. When the manufacture of dynamite was banned in France in 1872, Nobel”s partner contacted Louis Favre, a Swiss contractor. Favre, who had amassed a considerable fortune, was able to pay the required guarantee of eight million francs and was lured to Switzerland to become a partner in the company. A few years later, however, Nobel bought Favre out of the company. However, a factory was built in Switzerland, which began its first deliveries in the summer of 1873.

The partners in Nobel”s German factories soon learned that a profitable dynamite factory had been set up in Switzerland, in which they were not shareholders. As a result, Nobel”s German partner applied for a patent in Italy for a variant of dynamite. On hearing of the new patent, Nobel”s French partner Barbe wanted to take strong action against Nobel”s German partners, but Nobel was in favour of negotiating. In November 1873, after negotiations, the company Societa Anonima Italiana per la fabbricazione della Dinamite – Brevetto Nobel, based on Nobel”s dynamite patent, was founded, with both German and French Nobel partners as shareholders. Nobel himself owned half of the company”s shares.

Problems with competitors

When setting up dynamite factories across Europe, Nobel usually started a new company at the same time. In different countries, the partners were different people, which meant that the factories began to compete with each other for markets. Nobel himself was chairman or board member of more than a dozen dynamite companies and twenty factories.

In addition, various explosives containing nitroglycerine began to appear on the market in several countries. The Nobel dynamite company had a virtual monopoly in Britain, but despite the patent, the German company Krebs & Co. tried to enter the British market in 1875. The company”s product was an explosive called lithofracteur, launched in 1872, which was virtually identical to Nobel dynamite. Nobel himself called the explosive ”dynamite in disguise”, and his company sued the German company”s director. Nobel lost in the lower court, but the higher court ruled that patent law had been infringed, and the head of the German company, Krebs, had to pay Nobel large damages. Thanks to the precedent set, no other companies producing ”fake dynamite” appeared on the British market.

Ballistite and trial

For years, Nobel had to negotiate with the heads of various factories and companies to create a single, unified dynamite company. Nobel”s workload was heavy as he had to sort out the problems of his many dynamite companies. After lengthy negotiations, it was finally possible in October 1886 to form a single dynamite company called the Nobel-Dynamite Trust Company. Nobel was elected Honorary Chairman of the company, a post he held until his death.

Before forming the company, Nobel was faced with a heavy workload, which made him want to refocus on his research work in his laboratory, which had been interrupted by the formation of businesses. In 1884, he applied for a patent for a new explosive to replace gunpowder in firearms, which he had named ballistite. There was a large market for this new material in the military industry.

In 1889, Nobel learned that a man named Frederick Abel had been granted a patent on a substance that Nobel believed to be identical to his own ballistite. The only difference between ballistite and the substance known as nitroglycerine powder was that Nobel had used the phrase ”nitrocellulose in a well-known soluble form” in his patent application, whereas Abel had written in his application that nitrocellulose was insoluble. Nobel initially tried to negotiate with Abel, but after learning that the substance had also been patented in other countries, he took a harder line.

Abel sold his patent to the British Crown, which under state law could not be sued. Therefore, Nobel had to wait until the first factory producing the substance was built. The factory manager was sued in 1890. Nobel lost, but took the case to a higher court. After a long trial, he lost his case in 1895 and had to pay £22 000 in legal costs.

Alfred Nobel and the Caucasian oil industry

Although Alfred Nobel is known the world over for inventing dynamite and ballistite, he also played a role in the oil business in Baku, Caucasus.

Alfred Nobel”s brother Robert Nobel had arrived in Baku in 1873. There he had discovered that the large oil reserves were being exploited with very primitive technology. Robert Nobel imagined how much profit could be made from oil deposits if they were properly exploited. He therefore invested his capital in the Caucasian oil industry and began to invest in drilling. Later, Louis Nobel also became interested in the opportunities offered by the oil industry and contributed to the investment.

On New Year”s Day 1879, Louis Nobel made an estimate of the investment needed for the remaining expansion phases. He estimated that the cost would be at least a few million roubles. Ludvig Nobel decided to contact Alfred Nobel, who was amassing his fortune in dynamite. Louis Nobel urged his brother Alfred Nobel to come to Baku himself, where he could see the potential of the oil industry. Alfred Nobel refused to go, but was prepared to invest ”at least a small amount of money”, as he put it, in Ludwig”s plans. At the same time, Alfred Nobel urged his brother to set up a limited company. Louis Nobel agreed, and in May 1879 the new company was named the Nobel Brothers” Oil Company. However, the short address was Branobel, by which the company was more commonly known.

Branobel”s share capital was three million roubles, of which Alfred Nobel”s share was 110 000 roubles. The brothers Alfred, Ludvig and Robert Nobel soon developed a new oil refining process for the company, which marked a technological breakthrough. Alfred Nobel”s role in the invention of this method is not known exactly, but he probably played an important role in its development.

By the mid-1880s, Branobel had a clear dominant position in the Baku oil industry, but it also had some competitors. In addition, Standard Oil, owned by the Rockefeller family, was also planning to enter the Russian oil industry. Alfred Nobel invited representatives of Branobel”s competitors to negotiations, which resulted in Branobel”s decision to buy the entire Bnito business in Batumi from its competitor, thereby giving it access to the world market. However, no agreement could be reached on the terms, and the plan collapsed.

Despite its competitors, Branobel continued to grow. Branobel”s end came only after Soviet Russia nationalised the company by 1920. Of Alfred Nobel”s fortune of over 31 million crowns at the time of his death, 12% had come from Branobel and the Russian oil fields.

Other inventions

Although Alfred Nobel”s main focus was on the design of explosives in the 1860s, he also invented many other things not only before, but also after. He had about a hundred different patented inventions. Many of these inventions, however, remained only at the design stage. Nobel received his first patents in the 1850s for an air pressure gauge, a gas meter and a water consumption meter, although none of these patents were put into practice. Shortly afterwards, he designed a lamp for Scottish miners that could use ordinary oil so that they did not have to use Nobel”s explosive oil and thus avoid using it for dynamite. In the 1870s, Nobel designed a train carriage that would run ahead of the locomotive and alert it in time to an obstacle on the track.

Nobel patented the gas burner he developed in 1875. It gave a much better light output than before. He also came up with ideas to improve fire safety in theatres.

In the late 1870s, Nobel began developing synthetic materials to replace leather and natural rubber. He succeeded in producing high-quality synthetic rubber in 1890, and faux leather and silk in the following years.

In the mid-1880s, Nobel became interested in the development of steel processes and sought to standardise the industry. Nobel also became interested in aluminium, which led him to turn his attention to electrolysis and other electrochemical methods used in industry, and he founded Elektrokemiska AB in 1895.

In the 1890s, Nobel designed a device for displaying moving images based on the slowness of the eye. Around the same time, he and Wilhelm T. Unge designed a flying torpedo to replace long-range artillery. In December 1893, Nobel bought Bofors, which manufactured cannons and owned a firing range, for the project. Nobel planned to start financing the mass production of the torpedo, but he died before he could. Nobel expanded Bofors” operations, and it began producing not only steel and cannons but also gunpowder. With Bofors, Nobel received a mansion on its land, where he lived for part of his time. He had noticed that the industrial environment in Sweden had improved and that the country”s universities were of a very high standard.

Nobel also designed domestic appliances such as refrigerators, although the mechanisation of domestic appliances came after him.

Nobel remained a bachelor throughout his life. Christopher Erik Ganter claimed in his 1947 book that 17-year-old Alfred Nobel had met a young woman in St Petersburg called Ilonka Popov, who became his great love. Popov, however, died of scarlet fever. In the autumn of 1876, Nobel met and fell in love with Sofia Hess, a Viennese woman in her twenties, much younger than himself. A few years later, Nobel bought her a valuable apartment in Paris. The relationship ended when Sofia began to live luxuriously and date younger men. After Nobel”s death, Sofia received only a very small bequest, but she managed to extort an unknown sum of money from the parties to the inheritance, using letters written by Nobel, to redeem them from him.

Despite his wealth, Nobel lived relatively modestly, at least compared to his brothers. He liked flowers and plants, of which he had many in his gardens and apartments. His rumbling stomach forced him to pay particular attention to his diet, but he nevertheless had a very high-quality and large wine cellar. Nobel was a lover of classical literature, especially French and English. He was a frequent visitor to the opera, the theatre and horse races.

Alfred Nobel died on 10 December 1896 in Sanremo, Italy. At the time of his death, he was one of the richest men in the world.

In his will, Nobel donated 32 million kroner to a foundation that would be responsible for awarding prizes annually to people who have made a difference in certain fields of science. This was a very large amount of money by the standards of the time. To ensure that the money would be sufficient for the future, Nobel stipulated in his will that the foundation should invest the money it received in government securities.

After the death of Alfred”s brother Louis in 1888, a French newspaper had published an erroneous obituary that was intended to condemn dynamite. The newspaper article is said to have influenced Nobel”s decision to leave his fortune to future generations in the form of the Nobel Prize. After seeing the announcement, Nobel is said to have wanted to preserve a better memory of himself for posterity, and in 1895 he drew up a new will under which a large part of his estate would be used after his death to establish five prizes. This will was the third and last of the Nobel bequests.

When Alfred Nobel was alive, his name was usually associated with explosives. It was only after Nobel”s death and the publication of his will that more attention began to be paid to his ideas on peace. The promotion of peace was clearly an important issue for Nobel, so he took this into account when writing his will. The Nobel Peace Prize was one of the five prizes set out in Alfred Nobel”s will and was to be awarded to a person who had made a significant contribution to peace. However, Nobel”s reputation as a peacemaker during his lifetime was not very high, as the ballistics he invented could only be used for military purposes and was not suitable for peaceful purposes.

Nobel himself saw the development of explosives and weapons as fitting his ideology. In a letter to peace activist Bertha von Suttner, Nobel wrote:

“My dynamite factories can end wars faster than your peace congress. On the day when two armies stand face to face and know that they can destroy each other in less than a second, all civilized governments will shun war and repatriate their troops.” ()

So Alfred Nobel believed that wars would end when weapons became too powerful. Nobel said he wanted to develop something, a substance or a machine, that would cause immense destruction. It was not until 1945 that the device Nobel had in mind, a nuclear weapon, was built, but it did not end the wars. Nobel was also wrong to believe that the huge death toll was enough to persuade governments to refrain from war. Alfred Nobel believed that the development of dynamite would end wars, because powerful explosives would make warring parties afraid to go to war for fear of massive casualties. World War I broke out in 1914, killing around 8.5 million soldiers.

In 1868, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Nobel the Letterstedt Prize for “important inventions of benefit to mankind”.

The synthetic element nobelium is named after Alfred Nobel.


  1. Alfred Nobel
  2. Alfred Nobel