Life and career
Alfred Nobel at a young age in the 1850s
Born in Stockholm, Alfred Nobel was the third son of Immanuel Nobel (1801–1872), an inventor and engineer, and Karolina Andriette (Ahlsell) Nobel (1805–1889). The couple married in 1827 and had eight children. The family was impoverished, and only Alfred and his three brothers survived past childhood. Through his father, Alfred Nobel was a descendant of the Swedish scientist Olaus Rudbeck (1630–1702), and in his turn the boy was interested in engineering, particularly explosives, learning the basic principles from his father at a young age. Alfred Nobel's interest in technology was inherited from his father, an alumnus of Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
Following various business failures, Nobel's father moved to Saint Petersburg in 1837 and grew successful there as a manufacturer of machine tools and explosives. He invented the veneer lathe (which allowed the production of modern plywood) and started work on the torpedo. In 1842, the family joined him in the city. Now prosperous, his parents were able to send Nobel to private tutors and the boy excelled in his studies, particularly in chemistry and languages, achieving fluency in English, French, German and Russian. For 18 months, from 1841 to 1842, Nobel went to the only school he ever attended as a child, in Stockholm.
As a young man, Nobel studied with chemist Nikolai Zinin; then, in 1850, went to Paris to further the work. There he met Ascanio Sobrero, who had invented nitroglycerin three years before. Sobrero strongly opposed the use of nitroglycerin, as it was unpredictable, exploding when subjected to heat or pressure. But Nobel became interested in finding a way to control and use nitroglycerin as a commercially usable explosive, as it had much more power than gunpowder. At age 18, he went to the United States for one year to study, working for a short period under Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, who designed the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor. Nobel filed his first patent, an English patent for a gas meter, in 1857, while his first Swedish patent, which he received in 1863, was on 'ways to prepare gunpowder'.
The family factory produced armaments for the Crimean War (1853–1856), but had difficulty switching back to regular domestic production when the fighting ended and they filed for bankruptcy. In 1859, Nobel's father left his factory in the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831–1888), who greatly improved the business. Nobel and his parents returned to Sweden from Russia and Nobel devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the safe manufacture and use of nitroglycerin. Nobel invented a detonator in 1863, and in 1865 designed the blasting cap.
On 3 September 1864, a shed used for preparation of nitroglycerin exploded at the factory in Heleneborg, Stockholm, Sweden, killing five people, including Nobel's younger brother Emil. Dogged and unfazed by more minor accidents, Nobel went on to build further factories, focusing on improving the stability of the explosives he was developing. Nobel invented dynamite in 1867, a substance easier and safer to handle than the more unstable nitroglycerin. Dynamite was patented in the US and the UK and was used extensively in mining and the building of transport networks internationally. In 1875 Nobel invented gelignite, more stable and powerful than dynamite, and in 1887 patented ballistite, a predecessor of cordite.
Nobel was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1884, the same institution that would later select laureates for two of the Nobel prizes, and he received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in 1893.
Nobel's brothers Ludvig and Robert exploited oilfields along the Caspian Sea and became hugely rich in their own right. Nobel invested in these and amassed great wealth through the development of these new oil regions. During his life Nobel was issued 355 patents internationally and by his death his business had established more than 90 armaments factories, despite his apparently pacifist character.
In 1888, the death of his brother Ludvig caused several newspapers to publish obituaries of Alfred in error. One French newspaper published an obituary titled "Le marchand de la mort est mort" ("The merchant of death is dead"). Nobel read the obituary and was appalled at the idea that he would be remembered in this way. His decision to posthumously donate the majority of his wealth to found the Nobel Prize has been credited at least in part to him wanting to leave behind a better legacy.