Alfred Nobel, who was interested in explosives since childhood, built a factory to manufacture nitroglycerin, a very unsafe explosive, and continued the research on safe detonation. In 1863, he invented a practical detonator. In 1865, Nobel invented an improved detonator called a blasting cap, triggering the modern use of high explosives. Nobel’s nitroglycerin factory blew up in 1864, killing his younger brother Emil. Undaunted by this tragic accident, Nobel built several factories to manufacture nitroglycerin for use in concert with his blasting caps. Nobel’s second important invention was that of dynamite (from Greek dynamis, “power”) in 1867 and was granted patents for it. Dynamite established Nobel’s fame worldwide and was soon put to use in blasting tunnels, cutting canals, and building railways and roads.
In 1875 he invented a more powerful form of dynamite, blasting gelatin, which he patented the following year. In 1887 Nobel introduced ballistite, one of the first nitroglycerin smokeless powders and a precursor of cordite. In 1893 he became interested in Sweden’s arms industry, and the following year he bought an ironworks at Bofors, near Varmland, that became the nucleus of the well-known Bofors arms factory. He registered more than 350 patents in various countries.
Nobel died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his villa in San Remo, Italy, in 1896. The opening of his will, which he had drawn up in Paris on November 27, 1895, and had deposited in a bank in Stockholm, contained a great surprise for his family, friends, and the general public. He left the bulk of his fortune in trust to establish what came to be the most highly regarded of international awards, the Nobel Prizes. Incidence in 1888 may have triggered the train of reflection that culminated in his bequest for the Nobel Prizes. That year Alfred’s brother Ludvig had died in France. The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with Alfred, and one paper sported the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead.”) Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. It is certain that the actual awards he instituted reflect his lifelong interest in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology, and literature.