Today is the birthday (1833) of Alfred Bernhard Nobel, a Swedish chemist best known for inventing dynamite and for establishing the Nobel prizes. The two are inextricably entwined, so, at the risk of repeating what you already know, I’ll dribble on for a while about Nobel, explosives, bombs, guns, and prizes before giving you a recipe.
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, the third son of Immanuel Nobel (1801–1872), an inventor and engineer, and Carolina Andriette (Ahlsell) Nobel (1805–1889). The couple married in 1827 and had 8 children, only 4 of whom survived past childhood. As a boy Alfred Nobel was interested in engineering, particularly explosives, learning the basic principles from his father at a young age. Because of various business failures, Nobel’s father moved to Saint Petersburg in 1837 and was successful there as a manufacturer of machine tools and explosives. He invented modern plywood and started work on the torpedo. In 1842, the family joined him in the city. Now prosperous, his parents were able to send Nobel to private tutors and the boy excelled in his studies, particularly in chemistry and languages, becoming fluent in English, French, German and Russian. For 18 months, from 1841 to 1842, Nobel went to the only school he ever attended as a child, the Jacobs Apologistic School in Stockholm.
As a young man, Nobel studied with chemist Nikolai Zinin; then, in 1850, went to Paris for further studies. There he met Ascanio Sobrero, who had invented nitroglycerin three years earlier. Sobrero strongly opposed the use of nitroglycerin, as it was unpredictable, exploding when subjected to heat or pressure. But Nobel became interested in finding a way to control and use nitroglycerin as a commercially viable explosive, since it had much more power than gunpowder. At age 18, he went to the United States for 1 year to study chemistry, working for a short period under John Ericsson, who designed the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.
The Nobel family factory produced armaments for the Crimean War (1853–1856), but had difficulty switching back to regular domestic production when the fighting ended and they filed for bankruptcy. In 1859, Nobel’s father left his factory in the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831–1888), who greatly improved the business. Nobel and his parents returned to Sweden from Russia and Nobel devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the safe manufacture and use of nitroglycerin. Nobel invented a detonator in 1863, and in 1865 designed the blasting cap. On 3 September 1864, a shed used for preparation of nitroglycerin exploded at the factory in Heleneborg, Stockholm, killing five people, including Nobel’s younger brother Emil. Dogged and unfazed by more minor accidents, Nobel went on to build further factories, focusing on improving the stability of the explosives he was developing.
Nobel found that when nitroglycerin was incorporated in an absorbent inert substance like kieselguhr (diatomaceous earth) it became safer and more convenient to handle, and this mixture he patented in 1867 as “dynamite.” Nobel demonstrated his explosive for the first time that year, at a quarry in Redhill, Surrey in England. In order to help reestablish his name and improve the image of his business from the earlier controversies associated with the dangerous explosives, Nobel had also considered naming the highly powerful substance “Nobel’s Safety Powder” but settled with Dynamite instead, referring to the Greek word for “power” (δύναμις — dynamis).
Nobel later combined nitroglycerin with various nitrocellulose compounds, similar to collodion, but settled on a more efficient recipe combining another nitrate explosive, and obtained a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was a more powerful explosive than dynamite. ‘Gelignite’, or blasting gelatin, as it was named, was patented in 1876; and was followed by a host of similar combinations, modified by the addition of potassium nitrate and various other substances. Gelignite was more stable, transportable and conveniently formed to fit into bored holes, like those used in drilling and mining, than the previously used compounds and was adopted as the standard technology for mining in the late 19th century bringing Nobel significant wealth, though at a cost to his health. An offshoot of this research resulted in Nobel’s invention of ballistite, the precursor of many modern smokeless powder explosives and still used as a rocket propellant.
In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel, who never had a wife or children, was disappointed with what he read and was subsequently concerned with how he would be remembered.
Nobel’s brothers, Ludvig and Robert, had exploited oilfields along the Caspian Sea and became hugely rich in their own right. Nobel invested in these and amassed great wealth through the development of these new oil regions. During his life Nobel was issued 355 patents internationally and by the time of his death his business had established more than 90 armaments factories, despite his stated belief in pacifism.
On 27 November 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish a set of prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. After taxes and bequests to individuals, Nobel’s will allocated 94% of his total assets, 31,225,000 Swedish kronor (SEK), to establish the five Nobel Prizes. This converted to £1,687,837 (GBP) at the time. In 2012, the capital was worth around SEK 3.1 billion (USD 472 million, EUR 337 million).
The first three of these prizes are awarded for eminence in physical science, in chemistry, and in medical science or physiology; the fourth is for literary work “in an ideal direction” and the fifth prize is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international unity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.
On December 10, 1896, Alfred Nobel succumbed to a lingering heart ailment, suffered a stroke, and died. His family, friends and colleagues were unaware that had left most of his wealth in trust to fund what are now known as the Nobel Prizes. He is buried in Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.
Today, as it happens, is Apple Day. The celebration started in England and has since spread to other countries where apples are grown. If I am still at it next year I’ll write a blog post on Apple Day on this day. For now, let’s have a recipe for Swedish apple pie in honor of Nobel. Swedish apple pie is actually a cross between a pie and a pudding, but it is one of my favorites for a quick dessert. Granny Smith apples are probably the best for this recipe, but use whatever good baking apple suits your fancy. Don’t use eating apples. See if you can find true cinnamon as well; it beats the generic cassia you get in cheap spice racks in supermarkets. You’ll need to go online, but it’s worth it – trust me.
Swedish Apple Pie
1 ½ lb apples – peeled, cored, and sliced
1 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
¾ cup melted butter
1 egg, beaten
Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.
Toss the apple slices with 1 tablespoon of sugar, and pour them into a pie plate.
Thoroughly mix together 1 cup of sugar with the flour, cinnamon, butter, and egg in a bowl. Spread this mixture evenly over the top of the pie.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes, or until the apples have cooked and the topping is golden brown.