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Alfred Bernhard Nobel: Founder of the Nobel prizes

By Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By HT Correspondent,

This Swedish industrialist and chemist had invented the dynamite along with other powerful explosives. He used his fortune to institute the Nobel Prizes which are considered to be the world’s most prestigious awards for intellectual achievement.

Alfred Nobel set aside part of his fortune to institute the Nobel Prizes to recognise outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.(Ilustration: Rushikesh Tulshiram Gophane)

Born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 21, 1833, to Immanuel and Caroline Nobel. During childhood, his health was poor but he was intelligent and curious about the world. His father tried to set up a business in Sweden but was not very successful, so he went to St Petersburg, Russia. His work there was to supervise the manufacture of explosives.


Private tutors taught Alfred. He soon became fluent in Swedish, Russian, English, French and German. He also developed interest in Chemistry. At the age of 18, Alfred left Russia and went to Paris where he began to study Chemistry. He then went to the United States. After that, he worked for his father’s factory in Russia which manufactured military equipment. The equipment was used in the Crimean War but when the war ended, the company found itself without orders and went bankrupt. After this his entire family then went to Sweden.


Like his father, Alfred liked to conduct scientific experiments. In 1864, an explosion at their Swedish factory killed his younger brother Emil and four other persons. He resolved to develop safer explosives. After a lot of study and experiments, he developed nitroglycerine in 1867. After that, he invented dynamite which was safer than nitroglycerine. Dynamite soon began to be used for building tunnels, canals, railways and roads. The invention of dynamite made him world famous. He set up a network of factories in Europe to manufacture dynamite in 1870s and ’80s.. He invented blasting gelatin in 1875 and got a patent. He then invented ballistite in 1887. But he found that though he had the patents, unscrupulous manufacturers often stole his inventions and processes. As a result, he was involved in a lot of litigation. His brother Ludvig died due to an explosion in 1888. A French newspaper by mistake published the obituary of Alfred with the headline “The Merchant of Death is Dead.” The report said, “Dr Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” The newspaper called him the Merchant of Death because he had made his fortune from explosives. When Alfred read the obituary, he thought that he would be remembered as the inventor of dynamite after his death and so he set aside part of his fortune to institute the Nobel Prizes to recognise outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.


Nobel travelled a lot on business but preferred to be a recluse and underwent bouts of depression. He lived simply, almost like an ascetic, and friends said he was a good listener. He remained a bachelor throughout. He was interested in literature and wrote plays, novels, and poems, most of which were not published. He was a father figure to his employees. He felt that democracy was not the ideal form of government. Though he developed explosives, he thought they would be used for peaceful purposes and not war. He passed away after he suffered a stroke in Italy on December 10, 1896. After the payments of taxes and bequests to individuals, he left behind 31,225,000 Swedish kronor (about $ 250 million in 2008) to launch the Nobel Prizes.


1. Nobel was deeply interested in the study of explosives. He studied chemistry for a year in Paris and four years in the United States. He found ways to use liquid nitroglycerin with less dangers.

2. He earned a lot of money from inventing Gelignite or blasting gelatin in 1875. He had combined nitroglycerin with other compounds to create this explosive. It began to be used widely for mining.

3. Nobel had 350 patents to his name. His first patent, obtained in 1857, was for inventing a gas metre. He then invented a detonator, blasting cap and ballistite which is a smokeless powder explosive used as a rocket propellant. He also set up 90 ammunition factories. He was the owner of the armaments company Bofors and the founder of the chemical company Dynamit Nobel.

4. Nobel was involved with Bertha Kinsky and corresponded with her till death. Apparently she persuaded him to institute a peace prize. She was the first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.


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