Sunday, 10 December 2017

Advent Calendar, box no. 10 - Alfred Bernhard Nobel by Kenne Fant

Today is December 10 and in Sweden it is called" The Nobel Day". Alfred Nobel, chemist, inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist died this day in 1896 in San Remo, Italy, 63 years old. What he had feared most happened: he died alone, only surrounded by servants. After reading Kenne Fant's depiction of Nobel's life, perhaps that is the most striking thing; he was a lonely and solitary person throughout his life. He was what we today call a workaholic, and his work was at the same time his hobby and greatest interest.

Alfred Nobel was one of eight children, of whom four reached adulthood, the brothers Robert, Ludvig and Emil. The father was also an inventor, although during Alfred's first years, the times were hard for the family due to the father’s bankruptcy.  They moved to St. Petersburg where the father started a new company, which the other brothers eventually took over and developed. The family became successful in Russia, and involved in the oil business in Baku.

All brothers were engineers, chemists and inventors. There was an incredible vitality and scientific thinking in the family. Alfred, through his father, introduced the use of nitroglycerin and developed the dynamite. He was disappointed throughout his life that people put the dynamite and other similar inventions into war. He himself saw the peaceful use, in mining, construction work, etc., as the main purpose. He had constant ideas and his estate inventory showed 355 patents in different countries. He created an international empire, most of the time travelling to visiting the 30 companies he had created around the world. At the same time he handled all his extensive correspondence himself.

His relationship with women was somewhat strained. At one point, he sought an assistant to help him with his administration. He came in contact with Bertha von Sutter, who visited him in Paris for an appointment. Alfred Nobel was delighted. She was interested, but was engaged to be married so turned down the offer. However, they remained friends through their lives.

What amazes and is difficult to interpret is his relationship with Sofie Hess. She was employed as an assistant in a flower shop in Baden Bei Wein and they met  in 1876. They started a relationship that would last over two decades. The letters they wrote each other have been published and many of them are quoted in the book. What Alfred had found in Bertha von Sutter, an intelligent, educated woman who could discuss science with him, was beyond the capacity of Sofie Hess. Nobel complains in his letters she does not educate herself, that she can not write properly and that she throws away her life with frivolous pleasures. The end of the relationship comes just a few months before Nobel dies.

He leaves a will, introduces several prizes and hence his legacy to the world. It was a bit of a shock to family members who only received a few tokens. Nobel was opposed to inherited wealth. During his lifetime, he was generous with donations for charitable purposes, but chose whom to given them to. The Nobel Foundation has awarded the prize since 1901. In 1905, Bertha von Sutter received the peace prize for her involvement in the peace movement.

In a letter he wrote to Sofie Hess in 1899, highlights his loneliness.
No one will miss me. Not even a dog like Bella will cry over me. Still, she would probably be the most honest of you all, since she would not snoop around for gold left behind. By the way, the dear people will, in that regard, be cruelly disappointed. I am looking forward in advance of the wide eyes and the many expletives, that will be caused by the lack of money.” (my translation)

An excellently, well-written and interesting biography of Kenne Fant. It is not easy to come close to Alfred Nobel the person, but through the many letters quoted in the book, we start to get an idea. Kenne Fant also takes us into the time of Nobel, the scientific developments and comments from friends and colleagues. Highly recommended for those who want to know more about Alfred Nobel.

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