Inspiring Life of Alfred Nobel, inventor of Dynamite


It was Petrus Olavi Nobelius, abound with talent in music and other fields, who met Olof Rudbeck, an intellectual leader at the University of Uppsala, founder of musical life at the university and around the place in general. On coming of age, he ended up marrying Rudbeck’s daughter and from this couple descended the family of Nobel. It was one of his grandsons who as a youth in military service, adopted the name Nobel. And now,  that seems to go for eternity due to one man down the lineage, called Alfred.



The reference to Rudbeck is of exceptional importance. The Nobel progenies inherited his inventiveness, love for arts and music, and last but not the least, his scientific temper. All this was evident in the Immanuel Nobel, his illustrious son Alfred and his siblings. A practical man all his life, with no formal education nor any knowledge of languages, he was a powerhouse of ideas. All that displayed his uncanny ability and exceptional intelligence – a genius.




Immanuel Nobel was a self-taught inventor and building contractor in Stockholm. He grew up in a poor family without formal education. His father taught him how to read and write. At 14, he became a cabin boy and went on a three year tour to the Mediterranean from Galve, a port city in Northern Sweden. On his return , he was first apprenticed to a Builder there only to shift to Stockholm to join school of architecture of the Academy of Art – or Mechanical School. Practicing as an Architect at 24 or 25, he dived headlong in to the profession, only to go bankrupt. The cause being a building he bought burned down in 1833. 



 His mother Caroline Nobel (maiden name Andrietta Ahlsell), was a gifted woman and the daughter of an accountant. Earlier, in 1827, she married Immanuel Nobel. The third and the youngest was our hero Alfred, born on October 21, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden. After the Nobels went bankrupt in 1833, the family moved to a simpler living quarter at Normansgatan, where Alfred spent the first nine years of his life.




Since Alfred suffered from chronic gastric ailments, he was confined to his house most of the time. His mother was his friend, nurse, teacher and his window to the world. Since he could not go to school, his mother read to him from his brother’s textbooks until he learned to read himself and became a avid reader. Alfred’s intelligence astounded his mother and she hoped that he would turn out to be a genius. When Alfred was eight, he joined school and was thrilled by the change. He was an eager learner and his health also improved. Soon the family rejoined Immanuel in Petersburg. The climate of Petersburg did not suit Alfred’s health. A spinal ailment and chronic cold added to his list of existing ailments.



Immanuel decided to provide first class private tutions to his sons. He employed a Swedish tutor, who taught them Russian. Alfred turned his bedroom into a classroom. He also helped his brothers, Robert and Ludwig in their lessons. Alfred became fluent in English, French, German, Spanish, besides Russian. Under the tutor’s guidance, he became acquainted with the Philosophes of the Enlightenment and discovered Shelley’s poetry. The English romantic’s rebellious spirit, his flaming protests against brutal authority, ignorance and base passions, became his lifelong inspiration.




At school, Alfred had picked up interest in chemistry. As he grew older, he found the family business more interesting and thought of promoting, it effectively. Alfred was sent abroad to study and to take care of business interests like buying tools, machinery, raw materials and supplying it with up-to-date technical and financial information. Immanuel then sent Alfred to America in 1850, for further education. There, he met John Erickson who had first designed the screw-propelled steamship in New York. He learnt mechanical techniques at the research room of John Erickson. He placed an order with him for some sketches on behalf of his father. He also spent a year in Paris with Jules Pelouse, a chemist, and it was here that he came to know about nitroglycerine that was found by an Italian scientist Ascanio Sobrero..




nobel4Immanuel wanted his sons to get involved in his business. On his return to Russia, Alfred joined Robert and Ludwig in research and development in their father’s factory. In 1853, the Crimean War broke out. As a result, the Nobel Steel and Machinery Manufacturing Company benefited by mass-production of military supplies for the Russian army. But in 1856 when the war was over and Tsar Nicolas I died, the new government unilaterally abolished the on-going contract with the Nobels and they once again faced bankruptcy. This crisis later turned into an opportunity. During the Crimean War, the Nobels had obtained a bottle of liquid explosive – nitroglycerine, which was very powerful but whose attributes were still unknown.


 However, they had to shelve the research on nitroglycerine and instead concentrated on the production of military supplies. Now that the business was over, Alfred Nobel could once again focus on conducting research on this new material. Alfred quickly saw that the advantages of nitroglycerin over gun powder were numerous and its uses could be exploited for commercial and technical purposes. His first achievement was the invention of the blasting cap (the explosion case), in 1863.



His hectic work schedule and travel did not leave him with much time for a private life. At 43, he felt exhausted too. It was at this time that he placed an advertisement in the newspapers, which read. “Wealthy, highly educated, elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” The most qualified applicant, an Austrian, Countess Bertha Kinsky was hired. After working for a short time with Nobel she quit to return to Austria and get married to Count Arthur von Suttner. Nobel and Bertha remained friends and corresponded with each other.


 According to Bertha, Nobel had expressed a wish to produce material for a machine that would have such a devastating effect that war from then on, would be impossible. In 1891, he commented on his dynamite factories to Bertha saying, “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your Congresses : on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” Nobel did not live long enough to see the deterring effect of his invention and how wrong his conception was.


 Over the years, Bertha became increasingly critical of the arms race. She eventually became a prominent figure in the Peace Movement. This influenced Alfred Nobel a great deal and in his final will, included a prize for “persons or organizations that promoted peace”. Years after Nobel’s death, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von Suttner.


After his father went bankrupt the second time, Alfred and his parents returned to Sweden. Alfred began experimenting with explosives in a small laboratory on his father’s estate. In spite of his invention of the blasting cap, he was not able to find a safer way to handle nitroglycerine. It was so volatile that once in 1864 while he was experimenting, it blew up Nobel’s factory killing his younger brother, Emil and many other people. This accident did not discourage him. In fact after his accident, Nobel built several factories to produce nitroglycerine with blasting caps, and among them the plants of Krummel, Germany and Vinterviken, Sweden were major.




 At that time the only dependable explosive used in the mines was black powder, a form of gunpowder. Nitroglycerine, a liquid compound that was recently discovered by Ascanio Sobrero was a much more powerful explosive. It could not be handled with any degree of safety, as it was extremely volatile. Alfred began manufacturing nitroglycerine in a small workshop at Helenberg and also concentrated in finding a safe way to handle it. During the research, he invented a detonator consisting of a wooden plug inserted into a larger charge of nitroglycerine held in a metal container. The explosion of the plug’s small charge of black powder aided in detonating the much more powerful charge of liquid nitroglycerine. This invention made Alfred a wealthy man and over a period of time, he gained recognition as an inventor of explosives. On further research on the detonator, he made a new improved detonator called ‘a blasting cap’. The blasting cap consisted of a small metal cap containing a charge of mercury fulminate that exploded either by shock or moderate heat. This invention of the blasting cap launched the use of high explosives in the modern world.





This was Nobel’s second most important invention. He observed that a mixture of nitroglycerine and Kieselguhr, a porous siliceous earth, formed a product, which was easy to use and safe to handle. He later named this product dynamite (from the Greek dynamics meaning “Power”). This particular invention gave him worldwide fame and prosperity. Soon after he gained patents from Great Britain in 1867 and from the US in 1868, the general composition of Dynamite No. 1 was 75 per cent nitroglycerine and 25 percent guhr. He saw that guhr was an inert gaseous substance and did not contribute much to the explosive power, but detected heat from the power, which would have otherwise improved the blasting action. Thus, he turned to active ingredients like wood pulp and sodium nitrate to improve efficiency in blasting and to vary its strength. Nobel patented the use of active ingredients of dynamite in 1869.


 Nobel next contributed by inventing gelatinous dynamites in 1875. There is a legend that he hurt a finger and used ‘collodion’, a solution of relatively low nitrogen content, nitrocellulose, in a mixture of ether and alcohol, to cover the wound. He was unable to sleep because of pain. On next day he went to the laboratory to check the effect of collodion and nitroglycerine. He was surprised to see that after evaporation of the solvent, there remained a tough, plastic material.


 He discovered that he could duplicate this by the direct addition of 7 to 8 per cent of collodion type nitro-cotton to nitroglycerine and that lesser quantities of nitro-cotton decreased the viscosity and enabled him to add other active ingredients. He called the original material – blasting gelatin and the dope mixture – gelatin dynamites. The principal advantages of these products were their high water resistance and greater blasting action power than the other comparable dynamites. This added power resulted from the combination of higher density and a degree of plasticity that allowed complete filling of the borehole (the hole that was bored in the wall seam or elsewhere for implantation of the explosive).


Alfred Nobel went on to be a successful businessman in the developing market of dynamite and detonating caps. In a very short period, he built factories and laboratories in 20 different countries. His factory in Krummel near Hamburg, Germany started exporting nitroglycerine explosive to countries in Europe, America and Australia. He also concentrated on other inventions such as synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk, chemical and explosive technologies. He was granted patents for 355 items before his death.


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