Alfred Berhard Nobel (1833–96)

Born in Sweden, the Alfred Nobel spent moved to Russia in 1842, where his father was employed in a mechanical engineering workshop in St Petersburg owned by the government. In the early 1850s the young Nobel studied and gained experience of industry in France, Italy, Germany and the United States.

He began to develop nitroglycerine in 1859-60, after it had first been prepared by Ascanio Sobrero (1812-88) in Turin in 1846. The substance was prepared by treating purified glycerine with a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulphuric acids. Nobel took out his first patent in 1863, but nitroglycerine proved unstable until in 1866 he combined it with kieselguhr to make dynamite. By 1865 he had established the principle of the detonator using mercury fulminate. During the 1870s he developed blasting gelatine, incorporating nitrocellulose in nitroglycerine. His fourth major invention was ‘smokeless powder’, developed as Ballistite from 1889, that could be used as a propellant for artillery pieces, and, in various forms, was widely used in every war of the 20th century.

From the mid-1860s Nobel began to create a multinational company, with factories at Krummel near Hamburg in Germany, opened in 1865, at Hurum in Norway, established in the same year, in Scotland, for which the site at Ardeer was acquired in 1871, in the United States in 1866, at Sevran 16 km NE of Paris, in 1870, and in Switzerland and Italy. Nobel’s factories did much to foster the growth of chemical manufactures in a wider sense, since the technology used in manufacturing high explosives could be adapted in such fields as synthetic fibres and dyestuffs.

Seven buildings of Nobel’s factory of 1875 are preserved as a museum at Hurum in Norway, his laboratory and mansion, used in his last years, are preserved at Karlskroga in Sweden, and there are commemorative plaques on the sites of most of his other works.

Nobel left most of his fortune to the establishment of the Nobel prizes.