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Summary Article: Nobel, Alfred Bernhard (1833-1896)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: Sweden

Subject: biography, chemistry

Swedish industrial chemist and philanthropist who invented dynamite and endowed the Nobel Foundation, which after 1901 awarded the annual Nobel Prizes.

Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on 21 October 1833, the son of a builder and industrialist. His father, Immanuel Nobel, was also something of an inventor, and his grandfather had been one of the most important Swedish scientists of the 17th century. Alfred Nobel attended St Jakob's Higher Apologist School in Stockholm before the family moved to St Petersburg, Russia, where he and his brothers were taught privately by Russian and Swedish tutors, always being encouraged to be inventive by their father. From 1850 to 1852 Nobel made a study trip to Germany, France, Italy, and North America, improving his knowledge of chemistry and mastering all the necessary languages.

During the years of the Crimean War 1853-56, Nobel worked in St Petersburg for his father's munitions company, which produced large quantities of munitions. After the war, his father went bankrupt, and in 1859 the family returned to Sweden. During the next few years Nobel developed several new explosives and factories for making them, and became rich. He spent the latter years of his life in San Remo, Italy, and died there on 10 December 1896.

Guncotton, a more powerful explosive than gunpowder, had been discovered in 1846 by the German chemist Christian Schönbein. It was made by nitrating cotton fibre with a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulphuric acids. A year later the Italian Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerine, made by nitrating glycerine (glycerol). This extremely powerful explosive gives off 1,200 times its own volume of gas when it explodes, but for many years it was too dangerous to use because it can be set off much too easily by rough handling or shaking. Alfred and his father worked independently on both explosives when they returned to Sweden, and in 1862 Immanuel Nobel devised a comparatively simple way of manufacturing nitroglycerine on a factory scale. In 1863 Alfred Nobel invented a mercury fulminate detonator for use with nitroglycerine in blasting.

In 1864 the nitroglycerine factory blew up, killing Nobel's younger brother and four other people. Nobel turned his attention to devising a safer method of handling this sensitive liquid. After many experiments he patented dynamite (in Sweden, the UK, and the USA) in 1867. Consisting of nitroglycerine absorbed by keiselguhr, a porous diatomite mineral, this is an easily handled, solid, ductile material. However, Guhr dynamite, as it was known, had certain technical weaknesses. Continuing his research, Nobel in 1875 created blasting gelatine, or gelignite, a colloidal solution of nitrocellulose (guncotton) in nitroglycerine, which in many ways proved to be an ideal explosive. Its power was somewhat greater than that of pure nitroglycerine, and it was easier to work with because less sensitive to shock, and it was strongly resistant to moisture.

The Nobels had long been trying to improve blasting powder. In 1887 the younger Nobel produced a nearly smokeless blasting powder called ballistite, a mixture of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose with camphor and other additives. Upon ignition it burned with almost mathematical precision in concentric layers. Nobel's last development was progressive smokeless powder, a further product of ballistite devised in his San Remo laboratory.

Nobel's interests as an inventor were not confined to explosives. He worked in electrochemistry, optics, biology, and physiology and helped to solve many problems in the manufacture of artificial silk, leather, and rubber and of artificial semi-precious stones from fused alumina. In his will, made in 1895, he left almost all his fortune to a foundation that would bestow annual awards on ‘those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind’. In 1958 the new element number 102 was named nobelium in his honour.

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