1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nobel, Alfred Bernhard

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1306721911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 19 — Nobel, Alfred Bernhard

NOBEL, ALFRED BERNHARD (1833–1896), Swedish chemist and engineer, was the third son of Emmanuel Nobel (1801–1872), and was born at Stockholm on the 21st of October 1833. At an early age he went with his family to St Petersburg, where his father started torpedo works. In 1859 these were left to the care of the second son, Ludvig Emmanuel (1831–1888), by whom they were greatly enlarged, and Alfred, returning to Sweden with his father, devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the manufacture and utilization of nitroglycerin. He found that when that body was incorporated with an absorbent, inert substance like kieselguhr it became safer and more convenient to manipulate, and this mixture he patented in 1867 as dynamite. He next combined nitroglycerin with another high explosive, gun-cotton, and obtained a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was a still more powerful explosive than dynamite. Blasting gelatin, as it was called, was patented in 1876, and was followed by a host of similar combinations, modified by the addition of potassium nitrate, wood-pulp and various other substances. Some thirteen years later Nobel produced ballistite, one of the earliest of the nitroglycerin smokeless powders, containing in its latest forms about equal parts of gun-cotton and nitroglycerin. This powder was a precursor of cordite, and Nobel’s claim that his patent covered the latter was the occasion of vigorously contested law-suits between him and the British Government in 1894 and 1895. Cordite also consists of nitroglycerin and gun-cotton, but the form of the latter which its inventors wished to use was the most highly nitrated variety, which is not soluble in mixtures of ether and alcohol, whereas Nobel contemplated using a less nitrated form, which is soluble in such mixtures. The question was complicated by the fact that it is in practice impossible to prepare either of these two forms without admixture of the other; but eventually the courts decided against Nobel. From the manufacture of dynamite and other explosives, and from the exploitation of the Baku oil-fields, in the development of which he and his brothers, Ludvig and Robert Hjalmar (1829–1896), took a leading part, he amassed an immense fortune; and at his death, which occurred on the 10th of December 1896 at San Remo, he left the bulk of it in trust for the establishment of five prizes, each worth several thousand pounds, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. The first three of these prizes are for eminence in physical science, in chemistry and in medical science or physiology; the fourth is for the most remarkable literary work dans le sens d’idéalisme; and the fifth is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international brotherhood, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.

See Les Prix Nobel en 1901 (Stockholm, 1904).