The Nobel Family: Swedish Geniuses in Tsarist Russia by Bengt Jangfeldt (Translated from Swedish by Harry D Watson) - review by Patricia Fara

Patricia Fara

Explosion of Talent

The Nobel Family: Swedish Geniuses in Tsarist Russia


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In 1870, the Swedish industrialist Immanuel Nobel promoted his recent invention, plywood, by listing sixty-three potential uses. One was in the manufacture of a type of safety coffin fitted with breathing holes as well as a lid that could be lifted from the inside and a rope attached to an external bell. It is hardly surprising to learn that Alfred, his youngest surviving son, suffered from an oppressive fear of being buried alive. Long afflicted with chronic syphilis, Alfred rewrote his will the year before he died, leaving most of his vast fortune to fund annual prizes for those who had ‘conferred the greatest benefit to humankind’. Despite raising legal objections, his disappointed relatives failed to annul the bequest that secured their surname perpetual fame. 

Alfred Nobel features surprisingly little in The Nobel Family, Bengt Jangfeldt’s collective biography that spans three generations and several countries. There is no entry for him in the index and – in contrast to his two older brothers, Robert and Ludvig – no chapter devoted to him and his activities. One of his more memorable appearances is as a wounded survivor of the ‘Nobel bang’, the name given at the time to an accidental laboratory detonation of nitroglycerine that killed his younger brother Emil. Despite the adverse publicity, Alfred managed to salvage the explosive’s reputation by stabilising it chemically to create dynamite, the catchy name he coined to replace his original choice, Nobel’s Blasting Powder.  

A meticulously researched and fact-filled tome, The Nobel Family provides not only a comprehensive history of an individual dynasty but also a wide-ranging analysis of industrial enterprise in Russia, Scandinavia and Germany over a period brought abruptly to a close by the Russian Revolution. Jangfeldt launches his saga in the

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