Alfred Nobel: A Biography

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Few documents have had a more enduring influence on our century than Alfred Nobel's last will and testament, for these handwritten sheets of paper established the most coveted and prestigious awards on earth. Nobel prizes confer more than mere recognition - they represent glory and power, and are the stuff of immortality. Yet the man whose name they bear has been lost to near obscurity. As Kenne Fant shows in this fascinating biography - the only one available in English - Alfred Nobel's life contained fierce and troubling paradoxes. He revolutionized the technology of destruction and invented dynamite, yet his dreams of a disarmed world inspired him to create the Nobel Peace Prize.
Alfred Nobel was determined to rise above the circumstances of poverty and humiliation to which he was born in 1833. His father, a self-taught expert in explosives, went bankrupt; Immanuel Nobel's sons did what they could to salvage the family honor and continue their father's work. Alfred became convinced that if the awesome powers of nitroglycerine - a fascinating and deadly chemical oddity of no known practical value, discovered some years earlier - could be harnessed, the dividends would be limitless. He worked to find a way of detonating the "explosive oil" safely, so that it could be produced and marketed. The igniter that he received a patent for in 1863 made this feasible. Nitroglycerine began to conquer the world. When in 1866 Alfred invented his "safety powder" - or "dynamite," as he called it - his reputation and his dynasty were already established.
One of the most powerful men of his time, Nobel was viewed by some as the model of success and entrepreneurial drive; to his workers, he was an enlightened and scrupulously honest employer in an age of mindless exploitation. Others, however, blamed him for the accidents caused by his inventions (one of which claimed his younger brother) and labeled him the "merchant of death." Victor Hugo called him "Europe's richest vagabond" because he moved about so restlessly. Harassed by imitators, sycophants, and frauds, and struggling continuously with bureaucracies and patent offices (only Thomas Edison surpassed him in the number of patents), Nobel was often desperately lonely. Rejected as a suitor by the only woman he loved, he turned in middle age to the charms of a Viennese flower girl less than half his age named Sofie Hess. His letters to Hess - reproduced here for the first time - are testaments to the complexity and genius of a man capable of blinding insight into the human condition but unable to expose himself to real intimacy.
Making extensive use of Nobel's letters and writings, Fant's portrait reveals Nobel in all his aspects - industrialist, pacifist, arms manufacturer, and poet, and does full justice to a compelling and visionary figure whose name has a secure place in our consciousness.

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