Probably few Swedish names are better known throughout the world than that of Alfred Nobel, and yet the general public knows very little about him. It recalls that Alfred Nobel was a great inventor, but exactly of what, besides dynamite, remains vague; it also knows that he was a great prize donor. But of his personal character hardly anyone has much of a notion, and if certain people have visualized him in their minds, the picture is not, as a rule, flattering. At times, some have imagined him to have been an uneducated man, somewhat vain and fond of both publicity and personal attention. But this picture is just the opposite of the true one. The real Alfred Nobel was a retiring, considerate person who detested all forms of publicity, a highly educated man and a thoroughgoing idealist.
From the name one might conclude that his family was of foreign origin, descended perhaps from one of the many strangers who have come to Sweden to stay. Even Alfred Nobel’s own father seems to have believed that the founder of the family was an English clergyman who, for some reason or other, had happened to settle in our country. That, however, is a complete mistake. The Nobles are descendants of Scanian farmers from the southern tip of Sweden, and the name, which was originally Nobelius, was assumed, in the usual seventeenth century manner, by the first member of the family who was able to get a university education. The reason why he chose Nobelius was that he had been born in the parish of Nobbelov.
This Petrus Olavi Nobelius, who happened to attend the University of Uppsala, was especially gifted in music, and this talent brought him into touch with the great Olof Rudbeck, the intellectual leader of the university, who may also be regarded as the founder of musical life in Uppsala. After Nobelius had completed his studies and had become a judge in the province of Uppland, he asked for the hand of his patron’s daughter, Vendela Rudbeck, and it is from this union that the family is descended. By one of their grandsons, who in his youth was in military service, the name was shortened to Nobel.
This origin has a certain significance, because the qualities of Olof Rudbeck recur, more or less, in his descendants – their interest in art and, particularly, the inventive ability which was so marked in our first natural scientist, whose multifarious scientific interests always had a practical aim. This Rudbeckia trait can be recognized with special clarity in Alfred Nobel and his brothers, as well as in their father, Immanuel Nobel.
The last-named was an unusual personality – a natural genius without any education to speak of. He had had hardly any formal schooling, knew no foreign languages, could barely write, and practically everything he knew he had learned by himself, But he was full of ideas and schemes, some of them quite fantastic, while others indicated an unusual degree of intelligence. When he was only fourteen he had to leave school and was sent to sea as a cabin-boy on a ship from Gavle, the port in northern Sweden where he was born in 1801. It was bound for the Mediterranean, and the trip lasted three years. After his return, he seems to have been apprenticed to a builder, at first to one in Gavle and then to another in Stockholm. During his free time in the latter city he attended, for a few hours each week, the only trade schools then to be found in the capital, the School of Architecture of the Academy of Art, and the so-called Mechanical School. At the age of twenty-four or twenty-five he set up as an architect and builder himself. His ventures were quite ambitious, but he had bad luck – among other things, one building he had bought burned down – and in 1833 he had to go into bankruptcy.
After that he found it rather hard to make his way in Stockholm, and in 1837 he moved to Russia, hoping to make a new career in that country. At first he was successful beyond expectations. He was able to start a machine shop which he expanded rapidly, especially after the outbreak of the Crimean War. From the Russian Government he then received commissions to improve the defense of the Russian coastline by means of submarine mines, to build steamboats and other things. But after the war was over the Russians went back on their promises to Nobel. His factory, which he had enlarged to meet the many expected orders, stayed idle, and once more he became bankrupt.
Depressed and disappointed, he returned to his native country. By this time he was already an old man, and to start all over again was not so easy as before. But his energy was still considerable, his wealth of ideas undiminished, and once more he was to make a contribution to technical industry. This time, however, he did it thanks to the aid he received from his son Alfred.
When the older Nobel left Sweden in 1837, his wife and three sons remained in Stockholm and did not move to St. Petersburg until 1842. All three sons became important men. The eldest, Robert, developed the great petroleum industry at Baku, the second, Ludvig, founded a world famous arms factory in St. Petersburg, and also had charge of the finances of the Baku organization. The third son was Alfred, who was born on October 21, 1833.
Strangely enough, Alfred Nobel never attended any school, with the exception that at the age of eight he was admitted to the first grade of the elementary school in Jacob’s parish. But he remained there only one year; after that the family moved to St. Petersburg. There all three sons received instruction from a private tutor, and Alfred never attended any university. Nor did he ever obtain any degree, and, like his father, he may therefore be called a practically self-educated man, because the tutorial instruction, too, came to an end as early as 1850 when he was only sixteen.
It is, however, apparent that even at that age Alfred Nobel stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries of the same age, both as regards knowledge and intellectual maturity. He was then a scientifically trained chemist and a remarkable linguist who knew German, English and French, besides Swedish and Russian; he took a serious interest in literature, especially the English, and, in general, had the main lines of his personal philosophy of life clearly laid out. The letters he wrote at this time give the impression of a prematurely developed, unusually intelligent, but sickly, dreamy and introspective youth who preferred to be alone.
At that time his father’s financial situation was good, and to improve his education further, Alfred Nobel was allowed to make a trip abroad, which lasted two years and included America. Most of the time he appears to have lived in Paris, where at some laboratory or other he continued his chemical studies. After his return, he was employed in his father’s factory and there he remained until the bankruptcy in 1859. How he managed to support himself immediately after that is not clear, but enough is known to make it certain that as early as this he began to experiment with nitroglycerine, which Ascanio Sobrero, an Italian scientist, had discovered in 1847 and to which Professor Zinin of St. Petersburg had called his attention. The first explosion that Nobel managed to bring about took place in May or June, 1862, and in October of the following year he obtained in Sweden a patent on his invention of a percussion detonator, called the ‘Nobel lighter’.
The reason why Alfred Nobel made his first application in Sweden was that his father believed he had discovered a new and more powerful gunpowder and had asked Alfred to come home and help him to develop it further. He came but found the discovery worthless and then set up, instead, a small plant at Helene Borg near Stockholm, for the manufacture of nitroglycerine. Production had hardly begun, when, in September, 1864, the little factory blew up. Several lives were lost, and among the dead was Alfred Nobel’s youngest brother Emil. This disaster crushed the aged father. A few weeks later he suffered a stroke and though he recovered somewhat, he never regained either his mental or his physical powers, and in 1872 he died.