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Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896)

His parents were Immanuel and Andriette Nobel – a couple who were to experience both success and failure in life. Immanuel was a natural genius in mechanics, drawing and invention. He soon had a good reputation as an architect as well, but in 1833 the young family suffered a setback.

As a result of a series of misfortunes, including a fire which razed their home, the family went bankrupt and was forced to move to a very spartan flat on the northern edge of Stockholm. The address was Norrlandsgatan 9.

1833 was also the year in which Alfred was born. Bankruptcy was an extremely painful experience for the family. they still suffered from it many years later and it made a deep impression on the young Alfred. All his life he was to remember the insult and humiliation that his family suffered.

In 1937 Immanuel left the family to seek his fortune in the east. He traveled first to Turku, Finland, and then on to St. Petersburg to introduce his invention of explosive mines.

His wife Andriette remained in Sweden with the children, Robert, Ludwig and Alfred. The family had known the burden of poverty before, but now they were to experience an even harsher reality.

It was a difficult time for Andriette since she had to support her sons alone. But eventually good news came from Russia, to the effect that Immanuel had succeeded in convincing the Russians of the quality of his mines.

Now, in 1842, after five long years, the family could be reunited in St. Petersburg. Alfred was nine years old.

From having experienced deep poverty, Alfred was now a member of the upper class in a country where serfdom and mass poverty were part of everyday life. Immanuel was careful to ensure that his sons received a good education. At the age of 17 Alfred could already speak five languages fluently: Swedish, Russian, English, French and German.

Alfred soon showed great technical talent, but he also enjoyed reading books and, above all, writing.

When he began to write poems in earnest and expressed an ambition to become a writer, he met compact resistance from his father. Immanuel Nobel’s plans for his son were not on the literary plane at all; he wanted Alfred to work on inventions and technology.

A planned study trip that would stretch over a long period and take in many countries was the weapon that his father used. If Alfred were to make the desired journey, he had to promise not to become a writer.

Alfred traveled to a number of European countries, but also to America where the 17-year old met, among others, Swedish inventor John Ericsson, builder of the ironclad warship Monitor. His father could not quench the fire in his son’s heart, and Alfred continued to write poetry. But when he became a celebrity he dared not show his work in public, and later burned almost everything he had written. At the age of 63, however, Alfred Nobel published a play called “Nemesis”. Perhaps he felt that his life was reaching an end, and he wanted, mainly for his own sake, to satisfy that writer’s dream?

For Alfred’s father Immanuel, business improved all the time and with it his finances. It was a time of war, and the Russian government needed large quantities of war materiel. They placed orders with Immanuel Nobel who thus made good profits and could pay all his debts in Sweden. For his contributions to Russian industry he was awarded the Imperial Gold Medal in 1853.

Immanuel experimented above all with various kinds of explosives, and Alfred followed in his footsteps.

During his long journey through Europe, Alfred had met an Italian in Paris, Ascanio Sobrero, who was experimenting with a material that had enormous explosive properties. Alfred realized at once the possibilities of nitroglycerine and he continued to develop the substance.

Alfred Nobel himself has described 1860 as the time when he “made nitroglycerine explode with success”.

The rapid upheavals in the life of the Nobel family were far from over. Immanuel faced yet another bankruptcy. When the war was over, and thus the profitable munitions industry, he suffered large financial losses.

Once again the family was split, with Andriette Nobel and her youngest son Emil returning to Stockholm. A few years later Alfred also moved back to Sweden and, together with his father, continued his attempts to tame the new explosive.

In 1864 a disastrous accident occurred at the Nobel family estate, Heleneborg. In a shed in which the experiments were taking place, 140kg of nitroglycerine exploded and five people were killed, among them Alfred’s youngest brother Emil.

There were a number of accidents over the next few years. Many people tried to stop the dangerous experiments, but at the same time more and more were becoming aware of what enormous benefit the new explosive could bring. Alfred’s main problem was to understand why nitroglycerine exploded so easily. He had to make it safe, so that lives were not put at risk every time it was used.

Finally he found the answer. By mixing nitroglycerine with a rare earth called kieselguhr, he could obtain an explosive force just as strong as before but much safer. He called the new discovery “dynamite”.

Alfred obtained the sole right to manufacture dynamite in one country after another. In only a few years Alfred Nobel and his explosive had conquered the world.

In 1871 Alfred settled in Paris, where he bought a magnificent villa on the Avenue Malakoff. The house is still standing. Once there, he continued to experiment and succeeded in producing an even more effective explosive which he called “blasting gelatin”.

In 1889 a macabre incident caused Alfred Nobel to have second thoughts. A journalist confused Alfred with his recently deceased brother Ludwig and Alfred could read his own obituary in the newspaper. In it, he was called the “merchant of death” because of all the profit he had made in improving weapons and developing explosives.

This hit Alfred very hard, since he was seriously trying to invent weapons so terrible that their inhumanity would deter people from anything that had to do with war. He also donated considerable sums of money to peace organizations, and today these interests are reflected in the Nobel Peace Prize.

In time, Alfred Nobel became extremely wealthy and famous. He received vast numbers of invitations to receptions, but he usually refused them. Not, however, the President of France. Alfred considered it his duty to come when the President called.

Honors and awards were also part of his life. But throughout his life, Alfred Nobel maintained a healthy distance to himself and his fame. In 1893 he was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Uppsala, and he valued that particular honor very much.

While in France, Alfred tested his invention of the “Nobel igniter” on the French governments firing ranges.

He offered France the chance to purchase the rights to his invention, but they declined. Instead, Italy showed an interest and wanted to obtain his “Nobel igniter”. Because of this, Alfred Nobel was accused of treason against France, and he felt forced to leave the country. His final home was the Italian town of San Remo, where he died on December 10th 1896.

Alfred Nobel was in many ways a divided, original personality. He never married or had children, and solitude was his constant companion.

This plagued him often, as did the meaninglessness of things. When his anxiety became unbearable, he would lock himself in his laboratory for several days in a row. His physical and mental upset gradually ebbed away in the intensity of his work.

Ever since childhood Alfred Nobel had suffered from weak health, often in the form of constant headaches, breathing difficulties, and heart problems.

He had a few love affairs during his journey through life, but the great inventor was never to know an all-encompassing love. As a young man he fell in love with a Swedish girl who worked as a pharmacist’s assistant in Paris. Shortly after, the girl developed tuberculosis and died.

At the age of 43, Alfred Nobel advertised for an intelligent and mature woman who could fill the double role of companion and private secretary with a skill in foreign languages. He received an answer from 33-year old Bertha Kinsky. She had everything that Alfred was looking for. He could discuss matters with her as with an equal. With her intelligence and urbanity, her interest in literature and her linguistic talents, she was exactly the woman Alfred had sought for so long.

Berth Kinsky was in love with an Austrian, Baron von Suttner, and was temporarily escaping from her own romance problems – the baron’s parents would not accept her. When Alfred asked her if her “heart was free” she told him the truth, but Alfred was already in love.

Shortly afterward, when Alfred was away on a month-long business trip, she left only a brief message to say she had returned to her baron. After that, Alfred no longer believed he could awaken tender feelings in a “lady of the world”. Instead, he felt he had become ridiculous. He sought solace with a young 18-year old flower girl – which sounds like a real-life Pygmalion story.

But a fairy tale is a fairy tale. Alfred did try to educate the girl by recommending books, but they remained two separate individuals with completely different attitudes and views of the world. For Sofie Hess, friendship with the aging Alfred Nobel meant having a fine home and new clothes.

The only woman who showed love for Alfred throughout his life was his mother Andriette. He was very fond of her and she always received a share when his business dealings were successful.

Alfred Nobel was haunted by a fear of death. Partly, it was a fear of being really dead, and partly being declared dead and then, after being buried, waking up in his own coffin. For that reason Alfred insisted that the veins in his wrists be opened after his death. Living alone, he also worried greatly about what his moment of death would be like. He did not want to die surrounded only by paid staff. It was important to have his friends and relatives there.

Alfred was struck by a brain hemorrhage and everything took place very quickly. What he had feared for so long now happened: he died alone, without friends, surrounded only by those who were paid to be there. A great inventor was gone, a man whose name will never be forgotten. In December of every year the name of Nobel is spread around the world in a spirit of festivity and dignity. Thanks to a man whose own life was in many ways a tragedy…