Alfred Nobel

Long Story Short

Alfred Nobel, born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden, hailed from a family with roots tracing back to Olof Rudbeck, a prominent technical innovator during the 17th century when Sweden held substantial influence in northern Europe. Gifted in languages, Nobel was not only proficient in multiple tongues but also expressed himself through poetry and drama.

He harbored a profound concern for social and peace-centric matters, espousing viewpoints that defied the norms of his era. These facets of Nobel’s character find resonance in the prize he established. Delve into his life to uncover his diverse passions: science, inventive spirit, entrepreneurial drive, literary pursuits, and dedication to fostering peace.


On October 21, 1833, a young boy entered the world in Stockholm, Sweden, destined for greatness as a renowned scientist, inventor, businessman, and the very founder of the Nobel Prize. The proud parents, Immanuel Nobel, and Andriette Ahlsell Nobel, named their child Alfred.

Immanuel Nobel, Alfred’s father, was an ingenious engineer and inventor. His expertise lay in constructing bridges and buildings, and he relentlessly experimented with innovative methods for rock blasting.

Coinciding with Alfred’s birth year, misfortune befell Immanuel Nobel’s business, leading to its closure. By 1837, Immanuel made the brave decision to relocate his business endeavors to new horizons in Finland and Russia. Consequently, Alfred’s mother, while remaining in Stockholm, shouldered the responsibility of nurturing the family. During this period, Alfred found himself in the company of two older siblings: Robert, born in 1829, and Ludvig, born in 1831.

Andriette Nobel, hailing from a prosperous family, established a grocery store. This store generated a humble yet essential income, contributing significantly to the sustenance of the family.

Nobel Family Moves to Russia

Soon after, Immanuel Nobel’s endeavors in St. Petersburg, Russia, began to prosper. He established a mechanical workshop that supplied equipment to the Russian army. He skillfully persuaded the Russian Tsar and military leaders that sea mines held the potential to thwart enemy ships and safeguard St. Petersburg from assaults. The deployment of these mines effectively deterred the British Royal Navy from encroaching within firing distance of St. Petersburg during the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856.

Buoyed by his accomplishments in Russia, Immanuel made the decision to relocate his family to St. Petersburg in 1842. By 1843, the family welcomed another addition, Emil. The four Nobel brothers were granted an exceptional education, guided by private tutors. Their curriculum encompassed natural sciences, languages, and literature. By the age of 17, Alfred had mastered speaking and writing in Swedish, Russian, French, English, and German.

Alfreds Transcontinental Journey

Alfred’s intellectual pursuits were chiefly inclined toward the realms of literature, chemistry, and physics. Yet, this predilection for the finer arts and sciences was met with notable disapproval from his father, who harbored aspirations for his sons to emulate his own path. The allure of poetry seemed at odds with the father’s expectations. Hence, a pivotal decision was made – Alfred, the young scion, would voyage overseas, a sojourn intended to metamorphose him into a proficient chemical engineer.

Within the confines of Paris, Alfred’s endeavors unfurled within the precincts of the esteemed Professor T. J. Pelouze’s personal laboratory. This venerable chemist’s domain became Alfred’s sanctum of knowledge acquisition. In this cosmopolitan tapestry, fate wove the threads of connection, introducing him to Ascanio Sobrero, a budding Italian alchemist. A mere triad of years prior, Sobrero had bequeathed the world nitroglycerine, a mercurial elixir of volatile potency. Alas, its propensities for explosive volatility rendered it a pariah of practicality.

It was within the crucible of this newfound camaraderie that Alfred’s curiosity was kindled, captivated by nitroglycerine’s latent potential. The reverberations of his enthusiasm echoed across the borders of nations and disciplines. A voyage homeward brought him to Russian soil once more, where in tandem with his patriarchal progenitor, he harnessed the dynamism of nitroglycerine, transmuting it from its erstwhile volatile guise into a tool of commercial and industrial import.

In hindsight, Alfred’s trajectory, veering from the path paternal expectations had cast, resonates as a testament to the sublime interplay of passion, cross-cultural exchange, and scientific innovation. It elucidates the profound notion that even within the crucible of a father’s preconceived desires, the crucible of one’s destiny might be forged, alchemized by the amalgamation of disparate ideals.

Retreat to the Swedish Homeland

Following the cessation of the Crimean War, the fortunes of Alfred’s paternal progenitor dwindled precipitously, compelling him to make the weighty choice of returning to his native Sweden. Meanwhile, Alfred’s senior siblings, Robert and Ludvig, elected to remain in Russia, staunchly endeavoring to salvage the remnants of the familial enterprise. Their endeavors bore fruit as they ascended the ladder of success, orchestrating the evolution of the nascent oil industry in the meridional reaches of Russia.

Upon the Nobel lineage’s repatriation to Sweden in the annus of 1863, Alfred’s concentration congealed around the intricate task of refining nitroglycerine as an efficacious explosive. Alas, these ventures bore grievous fruit in the form of calamitous mishaps, exacting a grim toll in lives lost, including that of Alfred’s cadet kin, Emil. Subsequently, the administrative echelons interposed, proscribing the continuation of these trials within the precincts of Stockholm.

Undaunted, Alfred persisted in his fervor, translocating his scientific endeavors onto a barge, a flat-bottomed vessel, ensconced upon the placid waters of Lake Mälaren. The year 1864 witnessed the commencement of large-scale nitroglycerine production, yet Alfred’s ceaseless spirit of inquiry remained undiminished. He continued to scrutinize diverse additives, ardently striving to engender a manufacturing process endowed with paramount safety measures.

Determination and Perseverance

This passage deftly unfurls a tableau of historical events and scientific pursuits that sculpted the trajectory of Alfred Nobel’s life. It delineates the dichotomy between familial bonds and professional aspirations, chronicling the divergent pathways taken by Alfred and his brothers in the aftermath of the Crimean War. The portrayal of Alfred’s unwavering determination in the face of adversity is emblematic of his resolute character. The narrative’s poignancy deepens as it casts a somber light on the price paid in human lives during his quest for scientific advancement. Moreover, the author’s vivid descriptions evoke the contrasting landscapes of Russia and Sweden, lending an evocative aura to the unfolding tale. The strategic placement of historical markers situates the events within a broader socio-political context, enriching the narrative’s texture. This passage serves as a testament to the intricate interplay of ambition, innovation, and human frailty in shaping the course of history

Alfred’s Ingenious Creation: “Dynamite”

In the annals of innovation, Alfred’s brilliance shone forth as he embarked on a series of experiments that yielded a revelation of profound impact. Within the crucible of his trials, the fusion of nitroglycerine with the delicate grains of kieselguhr unveiled a metamorphosis – the once fluid substance congealed into a malleable paste, susceptible to being meticulously molded into slender rods. These rods, bearing the promise of transformative potential, found their purpose within bored recesses, ushering in an epochal transformation.

The chronicles of discovery record this seminal moment in 1866, an instant when Alfred’s ingenuity transmuted into reality. It was the following year that he, through the channels of patent law, secured the mantle of proprietorship over his creation. Bestowing upon it the appellation of “dynamite,” he not only christened a substance but summoned forth an era-altering force.

In tandem with this epoch-defining innovation, Alfred’s visionary mind unfurled yet another marvel – a detonator, an agent of ignition that responded to the touch of flame upon fuse. The alchemy of chemistry merged with the dance of mechanics, birthing a mechanism capable of unleashing potent energies from dormant elements.

These revelations burgeoned forth at a juncture where the ascent of the diamond drilling crown and the advent of the pneumatic drill had come to fruition. It was a symphony of scientific triumphs, resonating through the corridors of progress. Unified, these inventions orchestrated a symphony of efficiency, dismantling the barriers of cost that often hindered grand constructions – tunnels hewn through obdurate mountains, rocks fragmented to clear passages, bridges woven to connect realms.

Alfred’s contributions, woven into the fabric of history, stand not only as a testament to human ingenuity but as a cornerstone of societal advancement. The intricate fusion of science, engineering, and vision reshaped the landscape of possibility, rendering the hitherto arduous endeavors of construction a harmonious ballet of innovation.

Various locations housed factories.

The requisition for dynamite and detonating caps remained substantial within the realm of construction endeavors. It was this very demand that rendered Alfred capable of erecting manufacturing establishments across a sweeping expanse of 90 disparate sites. While his dwelling was nestled in Paris, his sojourns frequently led him to traverse his industrial enclaves scattered across more than 20 nations. He was once eulogized as the “preeminent vagabond of Europe,” a testament to his immense riches meandering through diverse landscapes.

His toil found its zenith in Stockholm, where his endeavors were fervently embraced amidst the Swedish ambiance; in Hamburg, amid the German precision, he left an indelible mark; Ardeer in Scotland bore witness to his contributions; Paris and Sevran in France bore traces of his industrial footprint; Karlskoga in Sweden was privy to his labors; and San Remo in Italy absorbed echoes of his industrious pursuits. Beyond conventional domains, he ventured into pioneering feats, crafting synthetic rubber and leather, as well as bestowing vitality to artificial silk. At the culmination of his earthly journey in 1896, his legacy was enshrined within an impressive roster of 355 patents.

Encountering Bertha von Suttner

Alfred was without a family of his own. One day, he placed an advertisement in the newspapers seeking a secretary. Bertha Kinsky von Chinic und Tettau, an Austrian woman, secured the position. After a brief period of employment, she returned to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner.

Though separated by distance, Alfred and Bertha von Suttner maintained their friendship through correspondence. Eventually, she became deeply involved in the peace movement and penned the renowned book “Lay Down Your Arms.” Alfred Nobel, in his later years, drafted his will to establish the Nobel Prize, which included a category for individuals or organizations that advocated for peace.

Alfred passed away in San Remo, Italy on December 10, 1896. In his final testament, he directed a significant portion of his wealth to be allocated towards awarding prizes to those who had contributed most to humanity in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.

However, not everyone welcomed this decision. Alfred’s relatives expressed opposition and authorities in various countries questioned the validity of his will. It took four years for his executors to persuade all parties to uphold Alfred’s wishes.

In 1901, the inaugural Nobel Prizes were granted in the categories of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature in Stockholm, Sweden. Additionally, the Peace Prize was bestowed in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway.

Alfred’s Interests in Literature

Alfred Nobel was primarily recognized for his achievements as an inventor and industrialist during his lifetime, overshadowing his fervent interest in the arts. However, in order to truly comprehend his multifaceted nature and the intricacies of his character, it is imperative to acknowledge his profound passion for the arts as well.

While Nobel’s professional endeavors and inventive creations were undoubtedly central to his identity, he also found solace and belonging within the realm of literature and writing. Upon his demise, he bequeathed a personal library boasting a collection of over 1500 volumes, primarily comprising original language fiction penned by eminent writers of the 19th century, alongside classics, philosophical treatises, theological texts, historical accounts, and scientific works.

Furthermore, he left behind an extensive assemblage of correspondences, a few poems authored in his youth, and preliminary versions of analytical novels like “In Brightest Africa” (1861) and “The Sisters” (1862). In the twilight of his life, when his inventive pursuits and business obligations afforded him more leisure time, he delineated the framework of a satirical comedy titled “The Patent Bacillus” (1895) and published a tragedy called “Nemesis” (1896). Nobel’s last will and testament, dated 1895, serves as a testament to his unwavering affinity for poetry, stipulating that one of the awards be granted to the individual who produces the most exceptional work in the realm of literature, aligning with the highest ideals.

St. Petersburg (1842-1863)

During his time in St. Petersburg, from 1842 to 1863, Alfred Nobel was under the tutelage of exceptional private instructors, primarily in the fields of chemistry and physics, but also in literature and philosophy. Displaying remarkable aptitude and intelligence, he was a precocious student, though reserved and introverted in nature. He embarked on independent learning endeavors, mastering French by translating Voltaire’s works from Swedish to French and cross-referencing with the original text. He delved into literary classics such as the Odyssey, Pushkin’s epic Eugene Onegin, and Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry in their original Russian form. By the age of 17, he had acquired fluency in Swedish, Russian, French, English, and German. The writings of English romantic poets Wordsworth, Shelley, and Lord Byron, the latter being his “preferred poet,” left an enduring impact on him.

In his poem “You Say I am a Riddle,” penned during his initial sojourn in Paris in 1851, traces of this romantic idealism resonate. The poem, comprising 319 lines of English verse, is largely autobiographical and is an homage to a “charming maiden” who met an untimely fate, buried too soon. It commences:

You say I am a riddle – it may be
for all of us are riddles unexplained.
Begun in pain, in deeper torture ended.
This breathing clay what business has it here?

Stockholm, Hamburg (1863-1873)

In the bustling years of his existence, Nobel found himself compelled to set aside his literary pursuits, particularly in the nascent stages of his journey when his focus was consumed by experiments, monetary troubles, ceaseless voyages, and the expansion of his industrial dominion. Nevertheless, indulging in exceptional literature remained his paramount source of solace, and he unfailingly carried a couple of books during his journeys. A correspondence discloses that, even as he reached the age of 35 when a few endeavors had veered off course, he entertained the notion of forsaking his commercial ventures and innovations to embrace writing as his vocation.

Paris (1873-1891)

At the age of 40, Nobel settled in the culturally rich city of Paris. He found himself enamored by the air of civilization that permeated the city, noting that every person there seemed to exude it. It was during his time in Paris that he crossed paths with Bertha von Suttner, who would later become the founder of the Austrian peace movement. This encounter proved to be significant for Nobel, not only for the peace cause but also for his literary pursuits. Von Suttner’s visit to his home left a lasting impression on her, as she marveled at his extensive library that catered to a wide range of interests. Despite the brevity of her visit, their intellectual bond was maintained through correspondence, leading to lifelong discussions on various subjects, including literature. Her works, dedicated to him as a “dear friend and comrade-in-arms,” may have influenced his own literary perspective, guiding him towards an “ideal direction.” This influence extended beyond societal reflections and anti-war sentiments, encompassing more personal and aesthetic themes as well.

Nobel’s social circle in Paris included literary figures such as Juliette Adam-Lamber, who hosted literary salons and published the magazine La Nouvelle Revue. Through her, Nobel had the opportunity to meet renowned writers like Victor Hugo, as well as younger talents such as Pierre Loti, Paul Bourget, and Maupassant. Both Nobel and von Suttner were also connected to the academic circle of La Revue des Deux Mondes. Despite his busy life, Nobel managed to stay updated on contemporary literature, amassing a collection that spanned various languages, including French, English, German, and Scandinavian. He had a penchant for beautifully bound editions of classics from writers like Musset, Tegnér, Shakespeare, Scott, Goethe, and Schiller, whom he frequently quoted.

While Nobel humorously dismissed Zola’s works, he held a preference for realism and psychological analysis, evident in his admiration for Balzac’s “Le Père Goriot” and “Eugénie Grandet,” Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” and Maupassant’s intricate short stories. Among Norwegian writers, Ibsen and Bjørnson captured his favor, with Bjørnson receiving the Nobel Prize in 1903. He also favored Danish storyteller H.C. Andersen and esteemed Russian writers Turgenev and Tolstoy, though Dostoyevsky was notably absent from his library.

One of Nobel’s most revered French writers was Victor Hugo, a pacifist, and idealist who showed compassion for society’s outcasts. Nobel and Hugo’s paths crossed on occasion, as they lived in close proximity to the Bois-de-Boulogne. On Hugo’s 83rd birthday, Nobel sent him a heartfelt telegram expressing admiration for his ideas of universal charity. Nobel’s literary connections extended to his niece’s introduction of Selma Lagerlöf’s “Gösta Berling’s Saga,” a novel he praised for its originality and captivating style. In 1909, Lagerlöf became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

During his time in Paris, Nobel acquired works by August Strindberg, but there is no record of their meeting. Nobel’s interest in Strindberg’s alchemical pursuits is evident in his discreet corrections of formulas in Strindberg’s essay “Introduction à une chimie unitaire.” Among Swedish poets, Nobel held Viktor Rydberg in the highest esteem, describing his writing as embodying nobility of soul and beauty of form. Nobel himself identified as a “misanthrope and yet utterly benevolent,” drawing parallels between his ideals and those of Rydberg.

San Remo, Paris, Bofors (1891-1896)

The diversity and depth of Nobel’s reading is evident in his extensive collection of books, spanning a wide range of subjects including philosophy, history, religion, and the history of science. He was well-acquainted with Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as the anti-religious ideas of positivist thinker Comte, which resonated with his own views. His annotations in works such as Lewe’s History of Philosophy and Taine’s Les Origines de la France Contemporaine show his careful engagement with philosophical ideas. Writers like Voltaire, Gibbon, and Taine captivated him with their wit and clear writing style, while Spencer’s philosophy of evolution also intrigued him. However, he struggled with Kant’s metaphysics due to its complexity.

Nobel’s library includes Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, reflecting his fascination with the evolution of man and his critical stance on religion. His notes in Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte indicate his interest in Lamarck’s and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Nobel’s philosophical thoughts on atoms, the cosmos, and the universe were influenced by Democritus, Bruno, Leibniz, and von Humboldt. Yet, he remained a skeptic and approached his reading with a critical eye.

After leaving Paris in 1891 and settling in San Remo, Nobel continued his writing endeavors. His novel In Brightest Africa explored political ideas through the character Monsieur Avenir, while The Sisters delved into faith and knowledge through the discussions of free-thinker Oswald. He also wrote The Patent Bacillus, a satirical work criticizing bureaucracy. In 1896, he completed the tragedy Nemesis, influenced by the story of Beatrice Cenci. Despite publishing 100 copies, most were destroyed after his death due to its perceived weaknesses.

Nobel’s letters reveal his extensive correspondence, discussing various topics like philosophy, inventions, war, and peace. He was skilled at adapting his language and style for different recipients. While he presented himself as a melancholic and unsociable figure in his private letters, his concern for his family and his wit also shone through. He had a fascination with language, displaying his literary talents in poetry and aphoristic reflections. Despite his self-denial and misanthropy, Nobel believed in progress through technological and scientific advancements, as well as the potential impact of literature on guiding humanity in an “ideal direction.”


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