A century on, Nobel's industrial legacy still resonates

Karlskoga (Sweden) (AFP) –


Alfred Nobel's last laboratory still exists, a stone's throw from a big explosives plant that his inventions and late-in-life business interests spawned.

Welcome to Karlskoga, a small town in the forests of central Sweden where the Nobel Peace Prize founder made home in 1894, two years before his death.

The pacifist and philanthropist was also the father of modern explosives -- and Karlskoga serves more than a century later as a living example of Nobel's global military industrial legacy.

Here, Sweden's defence industry now produces state-of-the-art cannons, artillery shells, bullets and explosives.

The site sprawls over three square kilometres (1.15 square miles) near this town of 30,000 people halfway between the Swedish capital Stockholm and the Norwegian capital Oslo.

'Nobelkrut' (NK) -- or Nobel gunpowder in English -- has been proudly manufactured here since 1898, the sound of howitzer test shots ringing out as regularly as churchbells throughout the day.

"The first gunpowder was called NK01. Now we're at NK1420," said Hakan Svensson, marketing director at the site where his father and grandfather worked before him.

Nobel invented the blasting cap in 1865, modernising high explosives. He then invented dynamite in 1867, and worked until his dying days on what all of Europe's armies dreamt of: a smokeless gunpowder.

The pacifist and philanthropist was also the father of modern explosives
The pacifist and philanthropist was also the father of modern explosives Jonathan NACKSTRAND AFP

Two years before his 1896 death and the reading of his now-famous will that created the Nobel prizes, he acquired the Swedish company Bofors, which was already making cannons in Karlskoga.

His assistant and executor of his will, Ragnar Sohlman, took over the group after Nobel's death, and the company went on to become the beating heart of Sweden's 20th century military-industrial complex.

- 'Modern and safer' -

Today, Bofors has been broken up and sold off, but there are still thousands of people employed at the Karlskoga site.

The gunpowder and explosives factory currently belongs to French group Eurenco, the European leader in the field.

"We use the same manufacturing method as Alfred Nobel, just more modern and safer," said production head Anders Hultman.

Powder trials and experiments with artificial rubber and synthetic threads were carried out in his laboratory
Powder trials and experiments with artificial rubber and synthetic threads were carried out in his laboratory Jonathan NACKSTRAND AFP

"Before, there used to be people who would sweep away the dust to prevent fires. Now, we have automated ventilators and tonnes of water can fall from the ceiling in a few seconds," he explained.

There is no one single large building here, like one would imagine at a modern factory.

Instead, for safety reasons, there are 600 bunkers and small buildings, some only as big as a single room that fits two or three people.

The global propellent and explosives industry is still closely linked to Alfred Nobel.

"Many of our competitors, especially in Europe, have a historical connection to Alfred Nobel," Svensson said, citing private companies in the UK, Germany, Spain and France.

- 'Richest vagabond' -

Nobel was a globetrotter -- he was nicknamed "the richest vagabond in the world" -- who at various times in his life lived in Sweden, Russia, Germany, France, the United States, Britain and Italy.

In order to protect his patents and avoid having to transport dangerous nitroglycerin long distances, the inventor founded companies all over the place.

His Swedish and British branches went on to become part of the multinational chemicals group AkzoNobel, based in the Netherlands.

And the Norwegian branch, founded in 1865, is now known as DynoNobel, a major civil explosives manufacturer.

In Germany, the plant founded by Nobel near Hamburg no longer exists, but its descendent Dynamit Nobel Defence is still active in the armaments industry.

Nobel medals are displayed at the laboratory
Nobel medals are displayed at the laboratory Jonathan NACKSTRAND AFP

The French branch, a dynamite manufacturer, is now the civil explosives group TitaNobel.

The non-defence applications for explosives are numerous -- the Bofors Eurenco site in Karlskoga supplies gunpowder to inflate car airbags -- but the defence sector remains a key market.

Towards the end of his life, he worked on a launch pad for rockets for military use, in San Remo, Italy.

But Nobel never saw a contradiction between his interests in pacifism and the weapons industry, according to Ingrid Carlberg, the author of a recent biography, noting that Nobel saw weapons as a deterrent.

Svensson underlines the point.

"I think we carry on Alfred Nobel's idea that we need to have some type of military production to stabilise the world, to keep it safe," said Svensson.

"If you use it for defence of course, not for attack."