Alfred Nobel was the third son of Immanuel Nobel (1801–1872) and Andriette Ahlsell Nobel (1805–1889). Born in Stockholm on 21 October 1833, he went with his family to Saint Petersburg in 1842, where his father (who had invented modern plywood) started a "torpedo" works. Alfred studied chemistry with Professor Nikolay Nikolaevich Zinin. When Alfred was 18, he went to the United States to study chemistry for four years and worked for a short period under John Ericsson. In 1859, the factory was left to the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831–1888), who greatly improved the business. Alfred, returning to Sweden with his father after the bankruptcy of their family business, devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the safe manufacture and use of nitroglycerine (discovered in 1847 by Ascanio Sobrero, one of his fellow students under Théophile-Jules Pelouze at the University of Torino). A big explosion occurred on the 3 September 1864 at their factory in Heleneborg in Stockholm, killing five people, among them Alfred's younger brother Emil.
The foundations of the Nobel Prize were laid in 1895 when Alfred Nobel wrote his last will, leaving much of his wealth for its establishment. Since 1901, the prize has honored men and women for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, for work in peace and now economics.
Though Nobel remained unmarried, his biographers note that he had at least three loves. Nobel's first love was in Russia with a girl named Alexandra, who rejected his proposal. In 1876 Bertha Kinsky became Alfred Nobel's secretary but after only a brief stay left him to marry her old flame, Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner. Though her personal contact with Alfred Nobel had been brief, she corresponded with him until his death in 1896, and it is believed that she was a major influence in his decision to include a peace prize among those prizes provided in his will. Bertha von Suttner was awarded the 1905 Nobel Peace prize, 'for her sincere peace activities'.
Nobel's third and long-lasting love was with a flower girl named Sofie Hess from Vienna. This liaison lasted for 18 years and in many of the exchanged letters, Nobel addressed his love as 'Madame Sofie Nobel'. After his death, according to his biographers - Evlanoff and Flour, and Fant - Nobel's letters were locked within the Nobel Institute in Stockholm and became the best-kept secret of the time. They were released only in 1955, to be included with the biographical data of Nobel.
Sri Kantha has suggested that 'the one personal trait of Nobel that helped him to sharpen his creativity include his talent for information access, via his multi-lingual skills. Despite the lack of formal secondary and tertiary level education, Nobel gained proficiency in six languages: Swedish, French, Russian, English, German and Italian. He also developed literary skills to write poetry in English.' His Nemesis, a prose tragedy in four acts about Beatrice Cenci, partly inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci, was printed while he was dying. The entire stock except for three copies was destroyed immediately after his death, being regarded as scandalous and blasphemous. The first surviving edition (bilingual Swedish-Esperanto) was published in Sweden in 2003. The play has been translated to Slovenian via the Esperanto version.
Nobel was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1884, the same institution that would later select laureates for two of the Nobel prizes, and he received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in 1893.