Alfred Nobel and Dynamite

During the gloomy period after the explosion, Alfred Nobel himself never lost his courage, and within a month he had organized a Swedish company for the manufacture of nitroglycerine of a less dangerous kind and immediately after that a Norwegian one; then he went abroad to get more patents on his discovery and to form stock companies for the production.

The obstacles he had to overcome were enormous, but within a few years the manufacture of nitroglycerine had developed into a world industry. In addition to this organization work, which forced him to spend his time in constant travel – in France, England, and America – he continued his scientific experiments and then invented the new, improved explosive, dynamite, on which he obtained a patent in 1807. After that, one new discovery followed the other.

Having started with a pair of empty hands, Nobel thus became rapidly a very wealthy man. But he never gained happiness, and his experiences with other men were often disappointing. ‘You refer’, he wrote in a letter, ‘to my many friends. Where are they? On the muddy bottom of lost illusions, or busy listening to the rattie of saved pennies? Believe me, numerous friends one gains only among dogs which one feeds with the flesh of others, or worms which one feeds with one’s own. Grateful stomachs and grateful hearts are twins.’ By nature he was a melancholic, a dreamer and something of a recluse. During protracted periods, his close associates relate, he would disappear, and no one knew where he was. That was when, to use his own words, the ‘spirits of Niflheim’ pursued him and he felt the need of being alone. ‘I want to live’, he wrote, ‘among trees and bushes, silent friends who respect the state of my nerves, and I escape when I can from both large cities and deserts.’ He was never a social success, though he had every quality required to be one: he was highly educated, was endowed, as his letters show, with genuine esprit, was naturally witty, and spoke German, English and French just as fluently as Swedish.

Bur even in Paris he had few acquaintances; the greater part of his time he spent in his laboratory, where he became so absorbed in his research work that he often forgot his meals. On the other hand, he was in no sense a helpless slave to his work, and when he met some congenial soul he could reveal himself to be a courteous, witty, experienced man of the world. Bertha von Suttner, the Austrian writer, has described her first meeting with him. He had advertised for a private secretary, she had replied and had been engaged. ‘Alfred Nobel’, she writes, ‘made a very favourable impression. In his advertisement he had called hirnself ‘an elderly gentleman’ and we had imagined him to be grey haired and full of quirks and pains. But that was not the case. He was then only forty-three, was somewhat below average height, wore a dark full beard; his features were neither ugly nor handsome; his expression was somewhat gloomy, but was relieved by his kindly blue eyes; his voice alternated between a melancholy and a satirical tone. He met me at the hotel where I was staying and, thanks to the letters we had exchanged, we did not feel like strangers. Our conversation soon became lively and absorbing.’

To some extent the life of a recluse which he led was due to the dislike, almost horror, he felt for all kinds of pretence and show. He was, of course, a famous man and was therefore often asked for his biography and his photograph. To such requests he replied vigorously in the negative and asked to be left in peace. ‘I am not aware’, he once wrote in reply to such a request, ‘that I have deserved any notoriety and I have no taste for its buzz.’ Another time he replied:’In these days of conspicuous and unashamed publicity, only those who are specially adapted to the purpose ought to let their photographs appear in a newspaper.’ He did not even have his portrait painted, and the only one of him that exists was painted after his death. The public honours he received were extremely few and in a letter he gives an amusing, though perhaps not wholly truthful, account of the reasons for the decorations he had obtained. ‘My decorations have no explosive basis’, he wrote. ‘For my Swedish North Star I am indebted to my cook whose art appealed to an extremely aristocratic stomach. My French order I received because of my close personal acquaintance with a member of the cabinet, the Brazilian Order of the Rose because I had happened to be introduced to the Emperor, Dom Pedro, and, finally, as far as the famous Order of Bolivar is concerned, I received that because Max Philipp had seen Niniche and wanted to demonstrate how true to life was the way decorations were handed out in the play.’ Obviously, he was not vainglorious.

He was a lonely man, and with his sensitive nature he suffered keenly from the misfortune of being without a home. He was born a Swede and always regarded himself as one, but at the early age of nine he had left his native country and after that returned to it only on temporary visits. He was never established anywhere. His parents’ home in St. Petersburg was broken up in 1859, when the old people moved back to Sweden. When he began his worldwide industrial activities, he first settled at Krummel, near Hamburg, but what he had there was more of a laboratory than a home, and most of his time was spent in railway carriages, steamship cabins and hotels.

In 1875, he acquired a house in the Avenue Malakoff in Paris, but when the laboratory there turned out to be too small, he built a new one at Sevran, on the outskirts of the French capital. But he did not take root there either, and in 1890 he moved to Italy where he bought a villa at San Remo, Mio Nido. Towards the end it was clear that he intended to establish a home in Sweden where he could spend the milder season each year and where he presumably hoped to finish his days. At Bofors he therefore had a house prepared for himself. But this plan was forestalled by his death, and it was in Mio Nido that, on December 10, 1896, he closed his eyes for ever.