Alfred Nobel, chemical engineer and endower of the Nobel Prize, was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833. His father Immanuel was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and buildings. Unfortunately for Alfred, the year he was born his father lost some barges of building material and declared bankruptcy; the family moved to Finland and Immanuel worked to start a new business in Russia. His mother Andrietta, who had come from a wealthy background, supported the family by working in a grocery store while Immanuel set up a workshop in St. Petersburg to provide equipment for the Russian army, which included naval mines which he himself designed. (Immanuel was something of a pioneer in arms manufacture.) In his new business Immanuel prospered.
In 1842 the family moved to St. Petersburg, where Alfred and his three brothers received an excellent education. Alfred became fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English, and German, and especially liked literature and poetry, as well as chemistry and physics. However, Immanuel discouraged his son's literary leanings and sent him abroad to study chemical engineering. Alfred visited Sweden, Germany, France, and the United States over the next two years, working in Paris with the famous chemist T.J. Pelouze. He also met Pelouze's student Ascanio Sobrero, who had recently invented the highly explosive liquid nitroglycerine, which at the time was considered too dangerous to use. In 1852 Alfred returned to Russia, where he worked with his father to develop nitroglycerine into a commercially and technically useful explosive for construction. Meanwhile, the Russian war ended and the family business was again forced into bankruptcy; Immanuel, Alfred and another brother, Emil, returned to Stockholm while the remaining two brothers, Robert and Ludvig, stayed in St. Petersburg, eventually salvaging the family enterprise and becoming very rich and successful.
Continuing his work with nitroglycerine, Alfred had some setbacks, including an explosion in 1864 that killed several people, including his brother Emil. Forced by Stockholm authorities to stop experimentation within city limits, he moved his work on to a barge anchored on Lake Malaren, where he discovered that mixing nitroglycerine with silica would turn it into a paste. He figured out that this explosive paste could be formed into rods which could be inserted into drilling holes in rock; he patented his discovery under the name dynamite. He invented a detonator which could be ignited by a lit fuse to use with his new invention. By happy coincidence, the diamond drilling crown and pneumatic drill also became widely available at the same time. Construction work which involved blasting rock - building canals, drilling tunnels, and so on - became much cheaper and easier than formerly. Alfred's business boomed; he founded factories and laboratories in 20 countries and became rich. He travelled constantly and pursued his business, but also continued his chemical engineering, developing synthetic rubber and leather and artificial silk. By the end of his life he held 355 patents.
In spite of his other pursuits, Alfred never lost his love of literature. When he died he left behind had an impressive library of over 15,000 volumes, mostly fiction in many languages, but also scientific works. His holdings also contained many letters, for like many learned people of his generation, Alfred was a keen correspondent, sometimes penning up to twenty letters a day to friends, family, and business contacts. Throughout his life he toyed with the idea giving up science and business for his first love, literature, and amongst his library were some of his own early poems, as well as drafts of novels. In Paris, where he settled in 1873, he moved in literary circles, and was a friend and admirer of Victor Hugo, the idealist and pacifist writer. In 1891 he moved from Paris to San Remo, Italy, forced out by French accusations of espionage after he sold war materiel he had developed in France to the Italians. He took with him as much of his library and laboratory as he could, as well as a few prized possessions, including an oil painting of his mother. In 1896, a few weeks after his death of a stroke in San Remo, 100 copies of his only published work, a play, Nemesis, were distributed at his own expense.
Alfred was never in great health. When younger, he had frequent headaches, indigestion, and spells of depression, all of which must have been exacerbated by his work with toxic chemicals under primitive conditions. Towards the end of his life he was in great pain from angina. In addition to his poor health, Alfred was a very busy man, as well as shy, introverted, melancholic, and misanthropic. None of this fostered the development of a fulfilling private life. In 1876, 43 and still single, he placed a personal ad which read: "Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household." Countess Bertha Kinsky, an Austrian, was Alfred's top contender; she came to Paris worked for some months as a secretary, but instead of staying with him she returned to Austria and married Count Arthur von Suttner. Nevertheless Alfred and Bertha remained good friends and wrote each other for decades. Bertha became a prominent pacifist, writing an anti-war novel, Lay Down Your Arms, and becoming active in the peace movement in Austria and Germany.
Alfred, in his will specified that the bulk of his estate should be invested in order to support a suite of five prizes which were to be awarded annually "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". The five areas Alfred designated were: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace - or as he phrased it, work for "fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses".
Alfred's first four choices of prize area are understandable, given his lifelong interest in science and literature, as well as his own poor health. But what of the peace prize, from a man who had been involved in the production of military materiel? Maybe his friendship with Bertha was a factor here. He and Bertha spoke and corresponded about weapons and peace from their earliest meetings. He espoused a peculiar view of the value of armaments in response to Bertha's criticism of the military applications of dynamite, remarking in a letter to her: "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops". Though it might seem odd to some that weapons can be used for peace, this vision of deterrence through a balance of terror became quite popular during the Cold War. He informed Bertha of his prospective peace prize in 1895, and she professed great pride and delight in the idea. In 1905 Bertha von Suttner herself was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Most of this information, and all the quotations, have been gleaned from the informative Nobel Foundation website