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Alfred Nobel

Alfred Bernhard Nobel (October 21, 1833 - December 10, 1896), Swedish chemist, engineer and the inventor of dynamite. In his last will, he used his enormous fortune to institute the Nobel Prizes.

Less well-known is the fact that Alfred Nobel was also a playwright. His only play (Nemesis, a prose tragedy in four acts about Beatrice Cenci[?], partly inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's blank verse tragedy in five acts The Cenci[?]), was printed when he was dying, and the whole stock exept three copies was destroyed immediately after his death, being regarded as scandalous and blasphemous. The first surviving edition (bilingual Swedish-Esperanto) was published in Sweden in 2003. The play has not yet (May 2003) been translated into English, or into any other language than Esperanto.

Alfred was the third son of Emmanuel Nobel[?] (1801-1872), born at Stockholm, but, at an early age he went with his family to St. Petersburg, where his father started a torpedo works. In 1859 this was left to the care of the second son, Ludvig Emmanuel[?] (1831-1888), by whom it was greatly enlarged, and Alfred, returning to Sweden with his father, devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the manufacture and use of nitroglycerin.

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Nobel found that when nitroglycerin 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 gunpowders[?], 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.

The Prizes

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 December 10, 1896 at San Remo, Italy, he left the bulk of it in trust for the establishment of five prizes, 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 "in an ideal direction" (see next paragraph) 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.

The formulation about the literary prize, "in an ideal direction" (Swedish i idealisk rigtning), is cryptic and has caused much consternation. For many years, the Swedish Academy interpretated "ideal" as "idealistic" (in Swedish idealistisk), and used it as a pretext not to give the prize to important but not very polished authors, such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Leo Tolstoy; later, this interpretation has been revised, and the prize given also to, e. g., Dario Fo and Josť Saramago, who definitely do not belong to the camp of literary idealism.

Nowadays, when it is possible to read the Swedish original of Nobel's own only literary text, Nemesis (see the beginning of this article), and take a look at his own philosophical and literary standpoint, it seems evident that his intention might have been rather the opposite than first believed - that the prize should be given to authors who fight for their ideals against such authorities as God, Church, and State.

See also: List of Swedes, List of Swedish scientists


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