According to Encarta Encyclopedia (1996) Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-96) was a "Swedish chemist, inventor, and philanthropist". Alfred Nobel's talents were evident at an early age. He was an intelligent, generous, 'self made man'. He was a prolific inventor, an astute businessman, an avid reader of science and literature and he was adept in five languages. Nobel tended to be a loner and has been referred to as "a man nobody knew" (Sohlman 1951: 42). This was largely due to his demand for privacy and his rejection of public and media attention. His achievements are lengthy, yet Alfred Nobel is largely remembered for inventing dynamite and being the benefactor of the Nobel prizes. Most of the limited written material concentrates on his work and his will and very little is known about the man himself. Nobel's enormous collection of personal and business correspondence provided authors with the greatest insight into this remarkable man.
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833. Alfred's father Immanuel was a natural inventive genius who had little formal education and "could barely read or write" (Gray 1976: 15). In 1837, after the failure of one of his many business ventures, Immanuel moved to Russia and opened up a manufacturing workshop (Gray 1976: 16; Schuck 1951: 14-15). His wife, Carolina, stayed in Stockholm with their three sons and ran a small shop in order to support them for the five years her husband was away (Gray 1976: 16). With backing from the Russian Government, Immanuel began developing land and sea mines (later used in the Crimean War) as well as gun carriages and tools. Eventually, his family joined him in St. Petersburg in 1842 (Gray 1976: 16; Griffiths 1993: 42).
Ongoing business success allowed Alfred to take a two year trip abroad. Most of this time was spent studying chemistry in Paris but Alfred also visited America, Italy and Germany. He returned and worked with his father until 1859 when the business was declared bankrupt due to the cancellation of contracts with the Russian Government (Gray 1976: 17,20; Schuck 1951: 14-16). Immanuel and his wife returned to Sweden where he began to experiment with nitroglycerin. Alfred organised finance for the testing and manufacture of the new explosive but it wasn't until he joined his father in 1863 that any success was achieved (Gray 1976: 21). Alfred set up a small plant near Stockholm and in 1863 he invented and patented a blasting cap; his first major invention (Gray 1976: 21; Schuck 1951: 16; Sohlman 1983: 45). In 1864 an explosion in the laboratory killed his youngest brother Emil and four others. His father suffered a stroke soon afterwards and never fully recovered (Gray 1976: 23; Griffiths 1993: 42; Sohlman 1983: 15).
In response, Alfred set about to organise a company for the manufacture of a less dangerous form of nitroglycerin and, with financial backing, formed the Nitroglycerin Ltd. Company. Testament to his great capacity for work he became "not only the company's managing director but also its works engineer, traveller, advertising manager and treasurer" (Gray 1976: 25). His goal to develop a more stable explosive was finally achieved in 1867 when he developed and patented a product he named 'dynamite' (based on the Greek word for power) (Gray 1976: 28; Griffiths 1993: 43; Schuck 1951: 16; Scobbie 1972: 81).
Dynamite opened up enormous engineering possibilities at a time of world industrial expansion. Nobel took out patents around the world and within a few years he had developed a global industry. He was forced to travel constantly, in spite of his enormous work load and ongoing experiments (Gray 1976: 23-25; Schuck 1951: 16). Dynamite was also patented under 'Nobel's Safety Powder', highlighting its use for human good as opposed to its destructive nature (Griffiths 1993: 43). Nobel went on to invent gelignite, ballistite and numerous other products. He opened up factories around the world and became a very wealthy man (Griffiths 1993: 43; Schuck 1951: 16).
What about the man himself? It was apparent from an early age that Alfred was an intelligent child (Schuck 1951: 14-15). One of the many poems he wrote in his youth confirmed that he had been a sickly child who "spent his first eight years in the intensive care of his mother" (Gray 1976: 16-17). Consequently, as Schuck (1951: 19) states, "there have been few as dutiful and devoted sons as Alfred Nobel". He had a strong sense of family loyalty and despite his busy lifestyle, Alfred kept in constant touch with his mother and provided her with a generous income (Schuck 1951: 14-15,19).
Alfred received limited schooling and never attended University, yet, when he returned from overseas it was apparent that he was: 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 remarkable linguist who knew German, English and French, besides Swedish and Russian; he took a serious interest in literature, especially English, and, in general, had the main lines of his personal philosophy of life clearly laid out.(Schuck 1951: 14). Correspondence during his time away "give us a picture of a precocious, intelligent but sickly, dreamy and introspective young man who preferred solitude" (Gray 1976: 17). Nobel continued to be a loner and was often accused of being detached. His introspective nature and liking for solitude may be attributed to having spent a great deal of time alone as a youth due to his protracted illness. Sohlman (1951: 42) wrote that he had a "strong disinclination to allow anyone to become too close to him", and yet, ironically, he continued to seek a close and loyal friend. Schuck (1951: 17) describes Nobel as 'a melancholic, a dreamer and something of a recluse' who used to disappear for extended periods and suffered from constant bouts of depression, which he referred to as "visits from the spirits of Niflheim" (Gray 1976: 36). Nobel's depression was particularly acute between 1880-1896, largely due to continuing ill health, as well as constant abuse and disappointments in business and personal relationships (Schuck 1951: 17; Sohlman 1983: 44-52). He maintained a few close relationships during his life but only developed his closest friendships, with Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljeqvist (both were made executors of his will), later in life (Sohlman 1951: 49). Testament to Nobel's judgement was the success which Ragnar (in particular) and Rudolf achieved in seeing Nobel's wishes come to fruition.
Nobel faced many setbacks during his lifetime; the loss of all of his immediate family, illness, factory accidents, failed relationships, competition, law suits, but, according to Sohlman (1983: 44-45), "he was a man of immense perseverance, and the courage of his convictions enabled him to stand up to setbacks of many different kinds." Writings about Nobel reveal little grief or emotion on the death of his younger brother, Emil. Instead, they emphasise the pragmatic way in which he dealt with the tragedy. Griffiths (1993: 42) portrays a very detached, almost callous view, when he states that Nobel took it "philosophically, observing, however, that one could not expect an explosive substance to come into general use without waste of life". Nobel's response appeared to be the same following other factory accidents. This apparent lack of public grief may have been wrongly misconstrued as 'insensitive'. His introspective nature may have meant that the only way he could deal with his grief was to absorb himself in work.
The fact that Nobel never married or had a family led to descriptions of him as being 'cold' and 'detached'. This is refuted by Sohlman (1983: 53) who believed that "(f)rom his earliest years he had an obvious need of tenderness and personal closeness which, however, was thwarted by scepticism and self doubt." While many believed that Alfred's mother was "the great love of his life", he sought and needed affection beyond hers (Sohlman 1983: 52,54). While he enjoyed the company of "cultured and intelligent women", he was critical and detached (Sohlman 1983: 54). Work pressures and constant travel would have made it very difficult to maintain a successful relationship and this could have been exacerbated by Nobel's temperament, which Sohlman (1983: 53) describes as "nervous and excitable, with a tendency to moodiness and violent outbursts if someone or something displeased him". The fact that Nobel was in his sixties when Sohlman made these observations, needs to be taken into consideration.
Nobel did in fact have close relationships with a few women. He maintained a strong affection for Bertha von Suttner who had worked with him for a short time and later became an activist for peace (Gray (1976: 36; Schuck 1951: 17, 22). Gray (1976:36-37) refers to an "earlier tragic love affair" with a young French girl. The most well known relationship (due to the large amount of correspondence) was with Sophie Hess. Nobel met her in Vienna in 1876 when he was 43 and she was 20. She came from a low to middle class background and he constantly encouraged her to study in order to improve her situation, as well as their relationship (Gray 1976: 36-37; Sohlman 1983: 56-57). There were some similarities between them; his family had been poor, he had had limited education and she was a 'sickly child', as he had been. His letters to her reveal a paternalistic relationship, where he often reprimands and admonishes her, while at the same time continues to indulge her every whim (Sohlman 1983: 57-70). Sohlman (1983: 57-70) found it difficult to understand how Nobel could become so infatuated with someone so different. In his letters, Nobel refers to Sophie as his 'little bird'; an interesting comparison with Ibsen's Nora. While Nobel desperately sought her affection and approval, he also realised that the relationship would inevitably end, largely due to the differences in age and intellect (Sohlman 1983: 57-59). Gray (1976: 37) was much more cynical about the relationship, referring to it as "a classic story: the innocent, almost naive, high-minded millionaire-scientist, and the lazy, worthless, grasping good-time girl".
Nobel had all the attributes (intelligent, witty, successful, well read, good conversationalist) to be a social success but tended towards a more reclusive life (Schuck 1951: 17). Schuck (1951: 17) believed that this "was due to the dislike, almost horror, he felt for all kinds of pretence and show". Sohlman (1951: 42) also refers to Nobel's "dislike of every kind of public appearance as well as of all forms of publicity and self-advertising". Nobel's apparent low self esteem may also have been a factor. In a letter to his brother, he referred to himself as "a pitiful half-life which ought to have been extinguished by some compassionate doctor" (Sohlman 1983: 44). Nobel also mistrusted the press and was cynical about honours bestowed upon him. He shunned publicity and requests for personal information (Schuck 1951: 17-18; Sohlman 1983: 21, 24). In reply to one request he wrote: "I am not aware ... that I have deserved any notoriety and I have no taste for its buzz" (Schuck 1951: 18).
Nobel's interests were expansive. He had a large library which covered a range of interests; particularly science and literature (French, German, Swedish, Russian, Norwegian, Danish, English) (Schuck 1951: 23, Sohlman 1983: 17). He was an avid letter writer, verified by Sohlman's (1983: 18-19) reference to "his voluminous correspondence and paperwork". According to Schuck (1951: 23), he was a gifted poet and his poems reflected his intensity, sensitivity, melancholy and great imagination. In spite of his heavy work load, Nobel also managed to write a few novels and keep abreast with current literature (Schuck 1951: 24).
had great leadership qualities, evidenced first hand by Sohlman
(1983: 20, 28) at Bofors, where he controlled all operations
and experiments up until his death. He invariably had high expectations
but appreciated the value and loyalty of others (Sohlman 1983:
18-19). While Nobel was considered to be a creative genius,
not all of his ideas were successful. As Sohlman (1983: 28)
In his creative activity, the true genius is as lavish with his ideas as Nature is fecund. In general, only a few of these ideas immediately find the right soil for growth and development. Some are merely barren seed. Others fall, perhaps, on stony ground because the time is simply not ripe for them.
Nobel admired creativity and intelligence in others. He sponsored many Swedish inventions, such as air torpedoes, a bicycle with variable gears, pressure nozzles and experiments with water power (Sohlman 1983: 30-31). Sohlman (1983: 82) refers to Nobel as a "unique financial genius ... regarding the investment of capital". So, while he was generous, the astute businessman took out patents, bought shares and invested money in many of the projects he sponsored. In the case of the Nobel-Unge rockets, Nobel met the costs of patents and experimental work and subsequently retained two-thirds of the profit (Sohlman 1983: 30).
Nobel was generous and gave large amounts of money to charities. He was selective but rarely denied those in real need or requests for scientific funding, unlike requests for memorials, as one of his letters confirms: "I'd rather take care of the stomachs of the living than the glory of the departed in the form of monuments". This reflects his religious views. He had a deep, idealistic religious conviction and "believed in religion in so much as it expressed itself in love for mankind" (Schuck: 1951: 19-20).
Nobel mistrusted lawyers and politicians (many were lawyers). He described himself as a "moderate social democrat", which Griffiths (1993: 43) attributes to the fact that he did not believe in inherited fortunes, rather, he believed in private initiative. In practice his attitudes were quite different. He was totally detached from his employees and while generous with his servants, he was strict and remote (Sohlman 1951: 42-43). Nobel attacked all forms of government and believed in a form of dictatorship whereby a responsible President (based on his record as a provincial leader) would be selected from a number of leaders who, had in turn, been selected by the 'educated public' (who have greater judgement and are less likely to be corrupted) (Griffiths 1993: 43; Schuck 1951: 21). In keeping with Swedish attitudes at this time, women would be able to vote but would not be entitled to a leadership role. As Nobel wrote: "To command is, so to speak, a masculine function." He also opposed free speech and a free press and was unsympathetic to democratic innovations underway in Sweden during his lifetime (Griffiths 1993: 40,41,43). His attitude reflects an idealistic and undemocratic view; hardly one attributed to a 'social democrat'.
Schuck (1951: 18) described Nobel as "a lonely man, and with his sensitive nature he suffered keenly from the misfortune of being without a home". While he always considered himself to be a Swede, Nobel spent an enormous amount of time travelling and had lived in homes in Sweden, Russia, Germany, France and Italy. Schuck (1951: 18-19) believed that this led to a feeling of homelessness and a lack of attachment and belonging. While Nobel maintained his strong allegiance to Sweden, he was "a citizen of the world" (Sohlman 1983: 41) and had no qualms about setting up factories around the world, or selling his inventions to numerous other countries, including Norway. He had a global perspective and disapproved of Swedish laws that restricted foreign capital and foreign board members (Sohlman 1983: 34). Nobel became increasingly homesick during the latter years of his life and subsequently established a major business enterprise and permanent home at Bofors in Sweden (Schuck 1951: 18; Sohlman 1983: 23).
were many contradictions between the man and his actions, particularly
Nobel's interest in the peace movement. Nobel was connected
with armaments all of his life and he continued to produce weapons
up until he died (Gray 1976: 13). While many of his inventions
were largely used for civilian purposes, they were also used
in war and some, such as cordite and the Nobel-Unge missiles,
were specifically designed as weapons. It would therefore appear
ironic that Nobel would go on to finance, through his will,
a world prize for peace. As Tony Gray (1976: 12) wrote:
the whole concept of the Peace Prize is an anomaly based on an anomaly, for the money came, in the first place, from a financial empire based on the invention of dynamite, gelignite and cordite by a man who, in his day, probably did more than any other single human being to make possible the horrors of prenuclear warfare.
Nobel was interested in efforts to establish peaceful outcomes,
and proposed an alliance between nations in order to achieve
peace, he was not an active advocate for peace and he was sceptical
about the possibility of disarmament. In response to a request
by Bertha von Suttner for financial assistance "he declared
that it would do just as much good to throw the money out of
the window" (Schuck 1951: 22). Gray (1976: 13) infers that Nobel
may have believed in the idea of 'the ultimate deterrent', evidenced
in a letter he wrote to Bertha:
My factories may make an end of war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops. (Schuck 1951: 22)
Sohlman (1951:44-45) believed that Nobel's invention of dynamite was misunderstood and in fact, "the major part of his fortune was derived from his inventions in the field of purely civilian explosives". While Nobel knew about the detrimental effects of his inventions, Sohlman (1951: 45) believed that it was simply, "part of a natural impulse to invent and improve."
Nobel was an optimist who placed great faith in the prospect of a better future. He believed that scientific discoveries and the continual acquisition of knowledge would provide 'the greatest good' for humanity and an anecdote to war (Schuck 1951: 24). Consequently, he left most of his vast estate towards "the support of scientific research and pioneering work "in the wide sphere of knowledge and human progress," including the peace movement" (Sohlman 1951: 41). Sohlman (1983: 34-35) believed that the establishment of his final will in 1895, provided Nobel with a purpose and the "realization that his indefatigable work had at last found a goal". With his ideas on inheritance and his lack of immediate family, this may have been a significant factor in his renewed enthusiasm from this time on. Nobel continued to work and create up until his death in December 1896, when "Alfred Nobel died, as he had lived, alone" (Sohlman 1983: 40). His achievements were lengthy and at the end of his life 'he held a total of 355 industrial and scientific patents, had built up 80 companies in 20 different countries and was one of Europe's richest men" (Gray 1976: 13). Nobel was a remarkable man who lived an extraordinary life.