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Alfred Nobel gave us armaments and achievement prizes

Summary:
On November 25th, 1867, Alfred Nobel filed a patent for a new type of explosive he called 'dynamite.' Nobel was a Swedish businessman, but also a chemist, an engineer and an inventor. He held 355 different patents, with the first, filed in England in 1857, being for a gas meter. His first Swedish one, in 1863, was for "ways to prepare gunpowder." He'd acquired an early interest in explosives from his father, and pioneered many innovations in that field. He invented a detonator in 1863, and two years later designed the blasting cap.He met Ascanio Sobrero, the inventor of nitroglycerin, and became interested in discovering ways to make it safe. It was so unstable and unpredictable that Sobrero himself was opposed to its use. Heat or pressure could make it explode, so Nobel wanted something

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On November 25th, 1867, Alfred Nobel filed a patent for a new type of explosive he called 'dynamite.' Nobel was a Swedish businessman, but also a chemist, an engineer and an inventor. He held 355 different patents, with the first, filed in England in 1857, being for a gas meter. His first Swedish one, in 1863, was for "ways to prepare gunpowder." He'd acquired an early interest in explosives from his father, and pioneered many innovations in that field. He invented a detonator in 1863, and two years later designed the blasting cap.

He met Ascanio Sobrero, the inventor of nitroglycerin, and became interested in discovering ways to make it safe. It was so unstable and unpredictable that Sobrero himself was opposed to its use. Heat or pressure could make it explode, so Nobel wanted something that made it stable enough to be safely stored and transported. That would make it commercially viable if it could be done.

He found that nitroglycerin could be blended into an absorbent, inert substance such as diatomaceous earth, a soft, siliceous sedimentary rock easily crumbled into a fine whitish powder. This made it safe to handle and more convenient to use. He called it 'dynamite' and patented it in 1867. It was rapidly taken up in the mining industry, and used extensively in building transport links, including tunnels.

Nobel tried combining nitroglycerin with nitrocellulose compounds, and finally achieved a transparent, jelly-like substance more powerful than dynamite. He patented it as 'gelignite.' It was more stable, easily transported, and could be shaped to fit in the holes made in drilling and mining. It became the standard technology used in mining, and made Nobel even richer than his previous inventions had made him.

In 1888 Nobel was the subject of one of those curious accidents of history that can change world events. His brother Ludvig died in France. Mistakenly thinking it was Alfred Nobel, rather than Ludvig, who had died, several newspapers ran obituaries of Alfred instead. They included a French one headlined, "The merchant of death is dead," and which went on to say, "Dr Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday."

Nobel was appalled to think that this was how he might be remembered, and resolved to improve his standing in the world by doing something more positive and worthwhile. He decided to bequeath his considerable fortune to fund an institution that would award prizes for excellent achievements in scientific fields, literature and peace. This established the Nobel Prizes. Six of them are awarded each year, one in each of the following categories: literature, physics, chemistry, peace, economics, and physiology and medicine. The economics prize, established in 1968, is actually called "The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel," but it is administered by the Nobel Committee and regarded as a Nobel Prize, with its winners called Nobel laureates.

These are regarded as the highest honours in their field, except perhaps for the Peace Prize, somewhat devalued by recent politically motivated awards to Al Gore, Barack Obama and the European Union. But the others are highly respected and honour the memory of Alfred Nobel in ways that he would have wished, as a philanthropist and benefactor instead of a weapons dealer. He gained one other honour he would have liked. The synthetic element nobelium was named after him.

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