Alfred Nobel, the Man Behind the Medal

Alfred Nobel, undated photograph. Courtesy American Swedish Historical Museum.

Today Periodic Tabloid welcomes Lauren Zalut, guest blogger from the American Swedish Historical Museum.

The world was watching on October 5 when news came from Sweden that Israeli chemist Dan Shechtman had won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Shechtman earned this honor “for the discovery of quasicrystals” – a controversial finding originally made in 1982 that has since changed the way scientists think about matter.

Shechtman joins the ranks of Marie Curie, Glenn Seaborg, Frederick Sanger, and 156 other laureates well-known in the history of chemistry. But while these scientists’ stories are covered heavily by the media, the public knows little about the Swedish chemist who started it all: Alfred Nobel. The American Swedish Historical Museum has an entire gallery devoted to Nobel and his prizes. The exhibition opened in 2001 on the 100th anniversary of the first prize ceremony, and highlights not only the winners of this prestigious award, but also the life and career of a remarkable man.

Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1833, Nobel actually grew up in Russia, and lived and worked in many countries throughout Europe. As the son of an engineer it’s no surprise that he showed a talent for science, but Nobel also wrote poetry and plays, spoke five languages, and had an intense interest in literature.

Nobel is usually remembered as the inventor of dynamite. He was one of the first people to develop safe methods to work with the highly explosive liquid nitroglycerin, which, when mixed with a kind of siliceous rock, can be shaped into the TNT stick we all recognize from Saturday morning cartoons. Nobel patented dynamite in 1867, and also invented the detonator used to set it off. The timing of his invention was perfect, given the “booming” business of tunnel, bridge, and railroad construction – all of which required explosive force – in the late 19th century.

Like quasicrystals, the invention of dynamite was not without controversy. It was obviously dangerous: the early days of dynamite production saw several large accidental explosions, including one that killed Nobel’s younger brother Emil. Due to the danger, Swedish authorities forbid Nobel to experiment with nitroglycerin within the city of Stockholm, but he carried on, moving his laboratory to a barge on a lake.

Nobel was more than a dynamite dynamo. He invented gelignite, also called blasting gelatin, a stronger and more stable explosive than nitroglycerine. As the story goes, a very inspired Nobel stayed up all night in his Parisian lab mixing nitroglycerine with collodion to create gelignite, and presented the new invention to his lab staff when they arrived in the morning. He also developed ballistite, or “Nobel gunpowder,” which produces water vapor rather than smoke when used.

Nobel’s curiosity drove him to constantly improve his inventions: by the end of his life he had secured 355 patents – and a vast fortune. Of course, another set of interesting stories unfolded after his death in 1896, when the dictates of his will were revealed.

Lauren Zalut is Education Manager at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia.

Alfred Nobel [Discover CHF]
Engraving of Alfred Nobel [CHF Collections]

Posted In: History

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