Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel was the first person who realized and understood the explosive nature of nitroglycerin after is was discovered by Ascanio Sobrero in 1847. Based on this explosive potential of nitroglycerin, Nobel invented the Dynamite. In 1856, however, the financial situation changed completely as, with the end of the Crimean War, the military cancelled their orders for equipment. So, Nobel and his father began to look for new products (Fant, 12-14).

It was probably through his chemistry teachers – Professors Yuli Trapp (1809-1882) and Nikolay N. Zinin (1812-1880) – that Alfred Nobel first heard about nitroglycerine (pyroglycerine). This explosive substance had been discovered some years earlier by a young Italian chemist, Ascani Sobrero, while he worked in Pelouze’s laboratory in Paris (Fant, 15-21). Encouraged by Zinin, Alfred Nobel began to experiment with nitroglycerine as an explosive in construction work, and his father took an active part in these studies.

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However, Immanuel Nobel and his company were once again facing bankruptcy, so Immanuel, his wife and the youngest son, Emil, returned to Sweden in 1859 (Sohlman, 93). Alfred stayed on in St Petersburg, in an apartment that he shared with his brothers. He turned the kitchen into a laboratory and undertook very dangerous experiments to find out how to manufacture nitroglycerine in large quantities.

In the winter of 1862-1863, Alfred Nobel and his brothers carried out test explosions on the ice of the river Neva, and developed naval mines. But his brothers, Ludvig and Robert, soon focused on reconstructing the family business and became very wealthy after successfully developing the oil industry in the southern part of the Russian Empire. In 1863, Alfred Nobel obtained his first Swedish patent on the use of the mercury percussion detonator of nitroglycerine (blasting oil) as an explosive in construction work.

One of the first main applications was in blasting a railroad tunnel that joined the main north/south railway line in Stockholm. However, several explosions – which included one in 1864 that killed Nobel’s brother Emil and several other people – convinced the authorities that the use of nitroglycerine was exceedingly dangerous. In Stockholm, experimentation with nitroglycerine was forbidden within the city limits, and Alfred Nobel had to move his studies to a barge, which was anchored on Lake Malaren, close to Stockholm.

However, Alfred was not discouraged and in 1864 he was able to start mass production of nitroglycerine. During a brief visit to Paris, he also managed to obtain a large loan from a French bank. He founded nitroglycerine companies in Sweden (1864), Norway (1865), Germany (1865) and the United States (1866). But, after several accidents in Europe and the United States, the authorities introduced regulations that restricted the possibilities of manufacturing and transporting explosives (Sohlman, 156-63).