The Richest Vagabond

Alfred Nobel: A Biography

by Kenne Fant, translated by Marianne Ruuth
Arcade, 342 pp., $24.95
Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel; drawing by David Levine

“Alfred Nobel—pitiful creature, ought to have been suffocated by a humane physician when he made his howling entrance into this life. Greatest virtues: keeping his nails clean and never being a burden to anyone. Greatest weaknesses: having neither wife and kids nor sunny disposition nor hearty appetite…. Important events in his life: none.”

Thus Nobel described himself at fiftyfour, when he was not only one of the most famous scientific inventors in the world but also one of its richest men. His was an extraordinary story. His father, Immanuel, also an inventor but a poor businessman, went bankrupt before Alfred was born, and the family was so poor that Alfred’s two elder brothers sold matches in the street and his mother had to make their clothes from cheap remnants. Immanuel’s fortunes changed when he moved from Stockholm to St. Petersburg. The Russian government encouraged the immigration of foreign scientists and entrepreneurs, and Immanuel, a self-taught expert in explosives, interested them by his improved land and sea mines (his subsequent inventions included a new kind of wagon wheel and Russia’s first central heating system).

Alfred studied chemistry, and quickly perceived the potential of the recently discovered nitro-glycerine, a spectacularly explosive but seemingly unharnessable fluid. If only one could find a way of safely packing and then detonating it, it would replace the far weaker gunpowder. One of his early experiments caused the death of five people including his young brother, but at age thirty he found the solution: a porous silicate of hardened algae called kieselgur, which absorbed the fluid so as to make a solid and transportable form. Nobel christened this dynamite; equally importantly, he invented a percussion cap to replace the quickmatch fuse. He intended dynamite for peaceful uses, especially in mining and the construction of railways, but unluckily it proved a godsend for terrorists—Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a dynamite-filled bomb.

The fear of nitroglycerine was so widespread that he had to conduct public experiments to demonstrate its safety, tossing dynamite sticks from a height or onto bonfires. In England a ban was introduced against its being transported by rail, so that Nobel had to send blasting oil to his British factory in bottles labeled “white wine,” and to ask acquaintances visiting his quarries in Wales to bring cartridges of dynamite in their luggage, as he did himself, a breach of the law which could have earned them two years in prison. But as the safety of his product came to be accepted, opposition waned, and by the time of his death he controlled over ninety factories around the world. He spent much of his life traveling among them by train, which he hated as much as he did living in hotel rooms. Victor Hugo called him “Europe’s richest vagabond.” He suffered continually from headaches and indigestion, and worried so much about drafts that at home he slept…

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