Alfred Nobel

Who was this man who revolutionized armament technology, yet had an ambivalent relationship to war?

Category: Mini Lectures

Date: 15 December 2014

Duration: 8 min

Quality: HD MD SD

Subtitles: EN

Alfred Nobel (2014) - Who was this man who revolutionized armament technology, yet had an ambivalent relationship to war?

Who was this man who revolutionized armament technology, yet had an ambivalent relationship to war? This Mini Lecture provides a detailed view on the life and work of Alfred Nobel.

Dynamite and the Nobel Prize He lived to the age of 63, never married, had many interests and talents, lived in different countries and over the course of his life registered more than 350 patents. Most people know Nobel as the inventor of dynamite and for the Prize, of course. But he was much more than that: a hard working scientist and inventor, an entrepreneur with a whole world as his working field, a true Renaissance man with an interest not only in natural sciences but also in philosophy, the humanities and literature. His whole life was characterized by the strong ideals of the Enlightenment, by his search for knowledge and strong believes in fundamental human values. It’s difficult not to be inspired by him and his life. But who was this man, who revolutionized armaments technology yet had an ambivalent relationship to war, a man who owned more than 80 companies all over the world and called himself a misanthrope – an enemy of mankind? Let’s go to the beginning. Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833, the third of four sons of Immanuel and Andriette Nobel. His father was an engineer and inventor, but business was bad at that time and Immanuel Nobel moved to Russia where he made a name for himself as a manufacturer of land and underwater mines. So explosives were a family tradition for Alfred. In 1842 the family followed Immanuel to Russia and prospered. The sons were tutored privately. Alfred grew up in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg where his interests, apart from physics and chemistry, included literature. It was a passion that he was to retain all his life. By the time he was 17 he spoke five languages fluently and was sent out to explore the world. In France he met Ascanio Sobrero who had recently discovered nitroglycerine, a highly explosive liquid obtained from glycerine and nitric acid in the presence of sulfuric acid. It was a more powerful explosive than black powder, which had been used until then, but it was uncontrollable making it too dangerous for practical applications. After two years in Europe and the United States Alfred returned to Russia where he began to work with his father on nitroglycerine. Then suddenly they went bankrupt. The Crimean War was over, the Tsar was dead and orders for armaments dwindled. Alfred’s parents and their youngest son Emil moved back to Sweden. Alfred followed a few years later. In 1863 Alfred Nobel obtained the first patent for an industrial explosive Mass production could begin. But he also experienced setbacks. In 1864 a factory shed in Stockholm exploded killing several people, among them his younger brother Emil. Alfred continued to work; he expanded and founded new factories including his first foreign production site near Hamburg in Germany. In 1866 came the breakthrough. Alfred Nobel discovered that nitroglycerine could be mixed with kieselgur to make a less shock-sensitive paste. The material was malleable, it could be transported safely and detonated using a blasting cap – it was: dynamite! This was an invention the world had been waiting for. Now huge infrastructure projects could be realized more cheaply and quickly. The Gotthard Tunnel and the Panama Canal are just two that were built with the help of dynamite. Nobel founded new firms all over the world and built up an industrial empire. At 40 he was wealthy, a brilliant inventor and first-class businessman but he continued to travel. The French writer Victor Hugo once called him “Europe’s richest vagabond”. His lifestyle affected his health. Alfred Nobel suffered throughout his life from various illnesses. In later life he developed angina pectoris, a cardiovascular disorder. A doctor treating him prescribed nitroglycerine, which is still used today to widen the arteries and Nobel wrote: Isn't it the irony of fate that I have been prescribed nitroglycerine, to be taken internally! They call it Trinitrin, so as not to scare the chemist and the public. He refused to take it. Alfred Nobel spent the last years of his life in San Remo in Italy where he died on December 10, 1896. Along with his millions, his inventions and a library with more than 1500 works he left a will that caused a stir around the world! He allocated the main part of his legacy to the establishment of a foundation that each year would honor the most outstanding persons in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature, no matter from what country. The bequest was seen as a scandal. Part of the family refused to acknowledge the testament. Even the authorities called it into question. In addition Nobel’s will named institutions that he hadn’t consulted to determine the laureates. More than four years passed until the first Nobel Prizes could finally be awarded. Up to now 860 people and 22 organizations have been honored with the highly endowed prize. The Foundation that administers this unique award continues to reflect Nobel’s versatility and his lifelong interests. Nobel was actually not so interested in rewarding achievements. He wanted to encourage progress. He wanted a better world. Alfred Nobel had an immense impact on the society of his time. By honoring outstanding people each year, the prize in his name carries his influence into the present day.


Who was this man who revolutionized armament technology, yet had an ambivalent relationship to war? This Mini Lecture provides a detailed view on the life and work of Alfred Nobel.