Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) was a Swedish chemist and engineer and the inventor of dynamite. He is best known for his contributions to the techniques of modern chemistry, for founding the Nobel Prize and his will, which currently provides much funding for these prizes, and for inventing dynamite.
He became wealthy while working in Russia in the early 1870s with his brother Carl. Here, he ran into problems with Russia‘s government because he was not interested in financing what he considered useless projects like steel production. So avid got himself an appointment at King Oscar II’s court to get out of this sticky situation where he could be more appreciated.
Nobel obtained several patents in Sweden related to how an explosive charge could be detonated underwater. He learned that other explosive work had been done in this area by the Frenchman, Monnit, and Pean de Lesseps but that their patents had expired. These other explosive patents would later be used by his brother to create Dynamite.
While living in San Remo, Italy, Nobel invented gelignite (also known as Nobel’s blasting gelatine). The process involved soaking cardboard or paper shavings in nitroglycerin and cooling them to form a jelly-like substance which he packed into tin containers for storage and transport.
In 1885 he tried to obtain a French patent for his gelignite process, but this was not granted as it had been copied from his earlier Swedish patent. Then, in May 1886, the French minister of the navy called for a military trial to test this explosive mixture. But as Nobel was due to attend a banquet in Paris on June 14, he decided not to submit the gelignite mixture to a test blast in Paris itself. This ensured that no other country would have a chance to try it first and made the 1885 gelignite explosion relatively safe.
Nobel’s experiments with nitroglycerin in 1875 and the means of detonation he devised in 1885 became the basis for dynamite. To this day, Nobel’s name is associated with dynamite. Around this time, he also invented a revolver that could fire more than one bullet at a time.
In 1893, Mevo Peyron, a French explosives expert, and chemist invented an explosive compound known as dynamite-T and patented the formula. He intended to use it to blow up trains carrying battle tanks that Germany was preparing for their planned invasion of France in World War I. However, his development was prevented by recognition of Nobel’s earlier dynamite patent. Nevertheless, Peyron’s two original dynamite-T formulas were rediscovered by a British intelligence officer during World War II, and portions of them were used as explosive mixtures for the German V-1 bombs.
In 1895, Nobel was asked by his Russian friends to help them find a way to produce more explosive mixtures without having to buy the raw materials from abroad. Nobel probably experimented with nitroglycerin since 1875 but concentrated on it more seriously after his first meeting with a Russian sponsor in 1888. As a result, he first patented the “detonator,” which provided a spark that set off the explosive mixture. The patent was made out on December 8, 1895.
The Russian government had a large financial stake in dynamite production, so it went to Nobel for help. He agreed to produce dynamite outside of Russia, and they began shipments of the explosive to St Petersburg in February 1896. The government also ordered the shipment of several tons of nitroglycerin and detonators and blasting gelatine he had patented for this purpose.
Nobel was now rich and happy and traveled extensively, enjoying his newfound wealth and popularity among his fellow countrymen who now called him “Uncle Al.” He was also very generous – donating large sums to charities and colleges (to which he later won considerable criticism). Perhaps the pinnacle of his generosity was creating the Nobel Prize, which he sponsored from his will.
He died at San Remo, Italy, on December 10, 1896, after a series of strokes and was buried in Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm. He donated close to SEK 32 million (the equivalent of $1.5 billion today) during his lifetime to fund Nobel Prizes and give away much of his wealth.