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Alfred Nobel

Alfred NobelAKA Alfred Bernhard Nobel

Born: 21-Oct-1833
Birthplace: Stockholm, Sweden
Died: 10-Dec-1896
Location of death: San Remo, Italy
Cause of death: Cerebral Hemorrhage
Remains: Cremated, Norra Begravningsplatsen, Stockholm, Sweden

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Inventor, Business, Philanthropist

Nationality: Sweden
Executive summary: Dynamite inventor, established Nobel Prize

Alfred Nobel's father was a prosperous munitions manufacturer in Russia, and his naval mines -- wooden casks filled with gunpowder -- were instrumental in preventing the British from shelling St. Petersburg in the Crimean War. The elder Nobel had his children educated by private tutors, and Alfred's teachers included the Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson. The munitions business collapsed with the end of the war, leaving the family impoverished, and for several years Nobel's mother was the family's primary breadwinner, working in a grocery store.

As a young man, Nobel shared his father's interest in explosives, and sought a way to make the violent explosion of liquid nitroglycerin somehow more controllable. In 1863 he succeeded in detonating nitroglycerin from a distance with a gunpowder charge, and two years later he patented the mercury fulminate detonator -- a crucial component for the development of high explosives. Nobel then established factories in Hamburg and Stockholm, and soon New York and California, but his name became controversial after numerous fatal accidents in the transit and use of his inherently unstable product, including an 1864 explosion that killed Nobel's brother, among other casualties.

Understandably, Nobel sought to make a safer explosive, and in 1866, by absorbing nitroglycerin into kieselguhr (a porous clay), he invented dynamite. Its explosive yield was noticeably less than nitroglycerin, but packaged in sticks it was relatively impervious to accidental detonation when shaken or dropped, which made dynamite an immediately successful product. Nobel's subsequent inventions include gelignite (marketed as Nobel's Extra Dynamite), a lower-yield explosive made by absorbing nitroglycerin into wood pulp and sodium or potassium nitrate; and ballistite, a smokeless explosive combining nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin.

Nobel was very withdrawn and single for his entire life, but he briefly dated Bertha von Suttner before she married. They remained friends and exchanged letters for decades, even after she became a prominent pacifist, writing against the war industry in her book Lay Down Your Arms. Nobel was plagued by migraine headaches, depression, occasional epileptic episodes, and angina -- for which he was prescribed the medicinal form of nitroglycerin, which he thought an amusing coincidence. He was a generous philanthropist, giving large sums for research at the Karolinska Institute, and underwriting some of Ivan Pavlov's research. He held more than 350 patents, and by his death in December 1896 he was one of the world's wealthiest men, the owner of several companies which dominated the explosives industry.

When his will was read three weeks after his death, newspapers reported the startling news that Alfred Nobel had left almost all of his fortune to a "fund for the advancement of science, the interest upon which is to be applied to the furnishing of prizes for competition open to the world" -- the Nobel Prizes.

His will established five awards, for accomplishments in chemistry, literature, medicine or physiology, peace, and physics, but his family contested the will in court, and the document -- written in Nobel's own hand, without legal counsel -- was a legal mess. He had entrusted the bulk of his estate to a foundation that did not yet exist, he did not explain the mechanism for determining prize-winners, and he had not discussed his plan with the groups assigned in his will to hand out the prizes -- the Norwegian Parliament (responsible for the Peace Prize); the Karolinska Institute (for the prize in medicine); the Swedish Academy of Sciences (for prizes in chemistry and physics); and the Swedish Academy (for the prize in literature). His own countrymen complained that it was immoral to hand a Swede's wealth to the world while many of Sweden's own people went hungry. It took several years to untangle the lawsuits and establish the prize protocols, and the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901.

His dynamite business, Nobel Industries, was an ancestor of today's Imperial Chemical Industries. In 1968, Sweden's Central Bank financed a separate prize in economics, and several decades of Nobel Prizes in Economics have helped elevate the public perception of economics as a science.

Father: Immanuel Nobel (munitions manufacturer, b. 24-Mar-1801, d. 1872)
Mother: Karolina Andriette Ahlsell Nobel (grocer, b. 1805, m. 8-Jul-1827, d. 1889)
Brother: Robert Hjalmar Nobel (b. 14-Aug-1829, d. 7-Aug-1896)
Brother: Ludvig Emmanuel Nobel (b. 27-Jul-1831, d. 12-Apr-1888)
Brother: Emil Oskar Nobel (b. 1843, 1864 explosion)
Brother: Rolf Nobel (b. 1845)
Sister: Betty Karolina Nobel (b. 1849)
Girlfriend: Bertha von Suttner (peace activist, dated 1870s)
Girlfriend: Sofie Hess

    Nobel Foundation Founder
    National Inventors Hall of Fame
    Imperial Chemical Industries Founder of Nobel Industries (1871)
    Asteroid Namesake 6032 Nobel
    Chemical Element Namesake nobelium (No, 102)
    Risk Factors: Depression, Epilepsy, Scurvy


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