Alfred Nobel

By James Clements - Burgh Offices Stevenston

The prosperity and growth of the town of Stevenston since the turn of the century can be attributed to the genius of Alfred Nobel and his decision to set up his explosive factory among the sand dunes at Ardeer. It is believed that the Ardeer sandhills, due to their height, was the only suitable site in the United Kingdom and the only site that the Government would allow dynamite to be manufactured on. Nobel, being a Swede, had no roots here and could have manufactured his product in some other country. Timothy Pont from 1604 to 1608 had the job from the Scottish government to compile a description of Scotland and in his topography of the Cuninghame district gives a description of Ardeer in the following terms:

'ARD-DYIRR or Knoppes quher indeed ther ar maney knoppes upon the seashore, an hard by it thar is a grate knoppe or mole of earth quharon, as if constantly affirmed, ther hath beine of old a grate castell seated'. (The place retaining the name of Castell Hill to this day.)

In Dobie's edition of Pont's Topograph of Cuninghame which was published in 1876 he makes the following observation: 'Ard-Dyir or Ardeer is in the parish of Stevenston'. The etymology seems expounded by Pont in the subsequent name Dyrclach-Dyr or Dyir being there explained 'wilderness' than which nothing could be more justly applied to the blowing sand alluded to Castell Hill is still well known. It is situated close to the main highway betwixt Stevenston and Kilwinning. Pont was mistaken, however, in describing it as a 'mole of earth'. It is of trap rock covered, indeed, as is usual in similar formations, with a beautiful green sward and now planted with trees. It bears marks of being one of the primitive forts so common along the north Ayrshire coast but which could never be entitled to the appellation of 'grate castells' or castle. In 1826 the sand hills was responsible for causing havoc in the district in that year there was an extremely hot summer. No rain fell for four months and the hot spell was followed by exceptionally high winds with the result that sand was blown for miles around. The character of this year was ever after known as the year of the short corn and sandy meal. The corn was so short that it had to be pulled up by the roots. The farmers' carts coming from the mills were intercepted and compelled to give the meal into the shops for sale. Later, in 1865, the City of Glasgow Corporation engineers visited the Ardeer sandhills with a view to recommending to the Corporation that the sandhills be purchased and used as a sewage factory for Glasgow. Through Nobel settling here, Ardeer was saved from that ignominious fate and was destined for world renown. It is not the intention of the editor to compile a history of Ardeer Factory-that would entail a work on its own. It has been said 'considering the unique and dramatic conditions that prevail among its workers, the neglect of Ardeer Factory by the novelists and dramatists hitherto is surprising'.

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833 and died in 1896. The properties of nitro-glycerine as an explosive were discovered as far back as 1847 by an Italian (Sobrero) but it was manufactured for the first time on a commercial scale by Alfred Nobel in 1862 in Sweden. In 1864, the factory which he had established was blown up and for a time the manufacture was prohibited by the Swedish government. Nobel's blasting oil, as the product was called, was very sensitive to shock or blow and very dangerous to handle. Many accidents followed its use and its employment in some countries was forbidden. It was so in our own country after a bad accident at Newcastle. Nobel tried to overcome the difficulty of dealing with it as a liquid first with mixing it with gunpowder (blackpowder) and then adding fluids which rendered it non-explosive so that it could be safely transported, the added liquid being removed after its arrival. In 1866, however, he invented dynamite, made by mixing nitro-glycerine oil with porous absorbing material and this he found solved the difficulty both of transport and employment. The discovery of dynamite marks an epoch in the history of civilisation as it entirely revolutionised the science of blasting and made it possible to execute the great engineering works of our times and brought that prodigious development of the mining industry of the world which we know today.

To work Nobel's patents, then, the British Dynamite Company was formed in 1870 and the works started producing in January 1873 under the management of one Mr. Downie, followed by Mr. McRoberts, who retired in 1889 through ill health. He was followed by a countryman of Alfred Nobel, Mr. Lundholm, a Swede, who, in taking up abode in Stevenston, had occasion to bring some maid servants with him from his native country.

Alfred Nobel was a many-sided man, interested not only in scientific pursuits, but was widely read in literature of not merely a lover of poetry but a poet himself. When he died in 1896 he was a millionaire. Nobel was reputed to be of a restless nature-it is true he never put down real roots anywhere. When the family home broke up in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) he lived in turn in Stockholm, Paris and San Remo where died. He had planned to finally settle in Bofors, Sweden. From the manufacture of explosives, Nobel made one of the largest fortunes in Europe in the nineteenth century. His will when published caused a sensation as he left his large fortune to his fellow men. It was contested by his relations but it stood up well and finally E2 million was available for investment in safe security. The interest to be divided into five equal amounts and shared by those who in the previous year rendered the greatest service to mankind. The Swedish government had to legislate to fill the gaps left in Nobel's will, to establish trustees and ensure continuity of the fund. Nominations for the various prizes are made by recognised institutions and academies in any country. The winners are selected by learned institutions in Sweden and the prize-giving ceremony is held in the presence of the Swedish royal family. One prize is awarded to the person who has made the most important discovery in the realm of physics, another to the person who makes the most important discovery ill chemistry; a third in the realms of physiology or medicine; a fourth for the outstanding work of literature and the fifth for the person who has done the most to bring about the brotherhood of nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies as well as for the formation or popularisation of peace congresses. These are known the world over as the Nobel Peace Prizes.

Blatant contradictions run through the life of Alfred Nobel and the history of his prizes. He professed atheism but it seemed it was only a false front for a deep but strange religious feeling and his ability for producing ever-more destructive explosives argued against his final hope that mankind would use them constructively and for the benefit of the human race. Nobel physics prize-winners include many of the key men whose work led up to the hydrogen bomb but who might, if the Nobel prize-winners had had their way, equally prove to have given the world a blessings greater blessing than it ever received at the hands of man harnessed atomic energy.

Nobel's industrial triumphs were built upon a disaster, an explosion in Stockholm in which his brother and four others were killed by nitroglycerine. Shortly after he was blending blasting oil with kieselguhr, a porous silicious substance, the mineral remains of a kind of moss which glows in stagnant water and is found in the north of Scotland. Stevenston has good reason to cherish the memory of Alfred Nobel whose genius has transformed one of the most barren spots outside the desert of Sahara into a hive of teeming industry.