The Nobel Prize: A Biography of Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel became interested in the use of nitroglycerin as an explosive. For years, he studied the most effective way to handle nitroglycerin while minimizing the risk of explosion.
The Nobel Prize: A Biography of Alfred Nobel
Paula Villasante

Written and verified by Paula Villasante in 18 July, 2021.

Last update: 18 July, 2021

The Nobel Prize is awarded each year for excellence in research – in fact there are five yearly awards. Recent research, outstanding techniques, and those that have made great contributions to society are taken into account. These awards were created by Alfred Nobel.

Biography of Alfred Nobel, the creator of the Nobel Prize

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833. He was the third child of six and his parent’s names were Immanuel Nobel (1801 – 1872) and Andriette Ahlsell (1805 – 1889).

His father, mainly self-taught, worked as a construction contractor. In 1833, his company went bankrupt. This was a difficulty for Immanuel, so he emigrated to Finland, leaving his family in Sweden. In 1842 he met them in Saint Petersburg. There, he set up a small metallurgical company and began manufacturing naval mines.

During the Crimean War, Immanuel’s company prospered greatly thanks to the Russian government, which was his main customer. However, at the end of the war, Immanuel’s company took a somewhat critical path, so he decided to leave it in the charge of his sons Ludwig and Robert. With that, Immanuel returned to Stockholm with his wife and children Alfred and Emil in 1863.

In St. Petersburg, Alfred devoted himself to studying chemistry and physics. However, he was also interested in literature. In addition, from the age of 17, he was fluent in Swedish, Uso, French, English, and German. Later, he learned Italian. In 1850 he traveled to Paris, where he worked for two years in the laboratory of Theóphile-Jules Pelouze, a professor at the polytechnic school.

laboratory scientists

Nitroglycerin and what it meant for Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel became interested in the use of nitroglycerin as an explosive. For years, he studied the most effective way to handle nitroglycerine while minimizing the risk of explosion. In fact, he found a way to stabilize nitroglycerin and began researching how to control its explosion.

Thus, in 1864, Alfred Nobel founded the company Nitroglycerin Aktiebolaget AB, dedicated to the manufacture of a nitroglycerin-based explosive with a mercury fulminate detonator which he named dynamite.

In 1865, he opened a factory in Norway and another in Hamburg. In 1866 he received 25% of the shares of the United States Blasting Oil Company for transferring the patent on dynamite and the detonator. He continued to make patents and in 1891 he retired to San Remo, Italy. In addition, on the advice of his brother Ludwig, he invested in oil wells in the Caucasus.

The set of 335 patents that he registered, his interests in companies and his oil investments allowed him to accumulate a very big fortune. In 1890, this was estimated at more than 30,000,000 Swedish crowns. He also received honors. The first, in 1884, when he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The second honor was awarded to him in 1893, in the form of the honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in 1893.

Your private life

Due to his work, Nobel didn’t get to start a family. In 1876, however, he ran an ad in the newspapers that read: “Wealthy, highly educated, elderly gentleman is looking for a lady of middle age, well versed in languages, as a secretary and supervisor of household chores.”

The candidate was an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Felicie Sophie von Kinsky (1843 – 1914), who was working with Alfred Nobel for two years. However, they never managed to establish a romantic relationship.

Over time, this woman, Bertha, became critical of the use of explosives for military purposes. So much so that, years later, she became a very famous pacifist. She even wrote a book on turn-of-the-century pacifism. It was she who influenced Alfred’s decision to allocate an award to the promotion of international peace. Bertha received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.


The last years of Nobel’s life

On October 25, 1896, in a letter to his friend Ragnar Sohlman, he wrote:

“My heart problems, they keep me here in Paris, at least for a few days until my doctors fully agree on my immediate treatment. It is an irony of fate that they prescribed me oral nitroglycerin! They call it Trinitrin, so as not to scare the chemists and the public. “

Creation of the Nobel Foundation

Alfred Nobel signed his will on November 27, 1895, and, in it, created the Nobel Foundation in the following terms:

“(…) the capital, realized in safe values by my testamentors, will constitute a fund whose interest will be distributed annually as a reward to those who, during the previous year, had rendered the greatest services to humanity. The total will be divided into five equal parts: one to someone who, in the field of Physical Sciences, has made the most important discovery or invention; another to someone who has made it in Chemistry or introduced the best improvement in that area; the third to the author of the most important discovery in Physiology or Medicine; the fourth to the one who has produced the most notable literary work in the sense of idealism; finally, the fifth to the one who has worked the best in the work of the brotherhood of peoples, in favor of the suppression or reduction of the permanent armies, and in favor of the formation and propagation of Congresses of Peace. (…) “.

The document was opened 20 days after his death, on December 30, 1896. Just over 30 million Swedish crowns were allocated to the creation of the Foundation. Thus, beginning in 1901, there would be five awards to be awarded annually. Years later, in 1969, a sixth prize for the field of Economics was added by the National Bank of Sweden.

Management of the Nobel prizes

The institutions in charge of the prizes organized the so-called Nobel Prize Committees. The latter are in charge of choosing to whom the prizes are directed.

Likewise, the monetary value of the prizes has been highly variable over time, in accordance with the annual income of the Foundation. In addition, these can be shared by up to three people or remain vacant. In the case of the Nobel Peace Prize, institutions such as the Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva or the Nansen International Office for Refugees (Geneva) can receive it.

The scientists who didn’t accept the Nobel prizes

Surprisingly enough, some of the Nobel Prize winners decided to reject them. Two of the most notable ones are:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. He explained that he didn’t want to be institutionalized and that he feared that its acceptance would limit the impact of his writing.
  • Le Duc Tho: For his part, this revolutionary, political and military man was awarded for his efforts to achieve peace in Vietnam. He stated that he was rejecting it because peace hadn’t yet been reached in Vietnam, but only a ceasefire.
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