Updated: Feb 10, 2020
The Nobel Prizes are announced annually; world-famous coveted prizes for those who confer “the greatest benefit on mankind” in sciences, literature, economics and peace.
They are named after Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who, horrified that his armaments and explosives empire would earn him the epitaph “Merchant of Death,” left his fortune for the furtherance of world peace and progress.
But what does this Swedish and indeed global story have to do with this area?
Alfred Nobel himself lived for a period of time at Hawthorn Cottage in Laurieston, near Falkirk. His story meets that of a former Falkirk High School pupil, George McRoberts, a local chemist and explosives expert who founded a chemical factory at Westquarter, Falkirk, and who was instrumental in helping Nobel establish in Scotland the world’s first and largest factory for his revolutionary new explosive – dynamite. The road eventually led to Linlithgow where the name Nobel is entrenched in the history of the town.
The road eventually led to Linlithgow where the name Nobel is entrenched in the history of the town.
Born in Sweden in 1833, Nobel was a prolific inventor. Dynamite, his most famous invention, revolutionised the construction of tunnels, canals, railways and roads as well as the mining industry. Previously, black powder (gunpowder) had been used for mining and quarrying, but industrialists were looking for a high explosive. One discovered by an Italian chemist in 1847 – nitroglycerine - was powerful but highly unstable and dangerous, and Alfred Nobel was one of many looking for a safe way of using it.
The route was punctuated by explosions and tragedy
The route was punctuated by explosions and tragedy; a nitroglycerine explosion at his family’s armaments factory in Sweden in 1864 killed his own brother and four others. Undaunted, Alfred pressed on and a year later with German business partners he built a factory at an isolated location near Hamburg. This business (Alfred Nobel & Company) exported a liquid blend of nitroglycerin and gunpowder called "Blasting Oil," but it was still extremely unstable; the factory buildings were destroyed twice in explosions.
But Alfred was tenacious and, carrying out experiments on a raft anchored on the River Elbe, by 1866 he found a way of stabilising nitroglycerine by absorbing it into a siliceous clay which could be shaped into lengths and handled fairly safely. This, together with a safety fuse and detonator (that he also invented), was dynamite. Initially marketed as Nobel’s Blasting Powder, he changed the name to dynamite, from the Greek dýnamis -"power." He patented it, and was on the road to massive fortune.
Dynamite rapidly gained wide-scale use in several countries, but in the UK it took Nobel two years of persistence to gain some relaxation of regulations governing explosives. The Explosives Act of 1869 prohibited the manufacture, transport or sale of nitroglycerine or any product containing it in the UK.
Nobel turned to Scotland where he gained the backing of some Scottish entrepreneurs
Although not able to set up in England, he turned to Scotland where he gained the backing of some Scottish entrepreneurs including one George McRoberts. McRoberts had just founded the Westquarter Chemical Company in 1871, manufacturing sulphuric acid. He and a co-investor raised the substantial investment required for Nobel to build a dynamite factory in Scotland, and the British Dynamite Company was formed. Nobel also bought a half share of McRoberts’ Westquarter Chemical Company, since the sulphuric acid was a key ingredient for dynamite manufacture, and the two men were close business partners. Ardeer in Ayrshire was chosen as a sufficiently remote site for the factory, the first charge was produced there in January 1873 by Alfred Nobel himself; and the British Dynamite Company started taking orders.
Nobel also bought a half share of McRoberts’ Westquarter Chemical Company, since the sulphuric acid was a key ingredient for dynamite manufacture, and the two men were close business partners.
McRoberts became Nobel’s chief chemist and factory manager at Ardeer in 1874. He relocated from Laurieston to Ardeer, selling his home “Hawthorn Cottage” at 1 Polmont Road, Laurieston, to Alfred Nobel. Hawthorn Cottage is still a private residence and is the only building remaining in Scotland that is directly associated with Nobel.
The barren sand dunes of Ardeer shifted constantly with the wind. Nobel wasn’t a fan. “Only the rabbits find a little nourishment here; they eat a substance which quite unjustifiably goes by the name of grass,” he wrote drily. McRoberts solved this problem of the drifting dunes by spreading ashes over the sandhills and rough bent grass was grew over the new surface.
By 1876 Nobel decided to manufacture his detonators in Scotland too instead of importing them, and he chose the Westquarter factory to make them, using mercury fulminate brought in from abroad. A couple of years later he decided to also make the fulminate on site here, and a purpose-built factory was added to the Westquarter site, about half a kilometre south at Reddingmuirhead on the other side of the Union Canal. There was a swing bridge across the canal linking the two factories.
Both McRoberts and Nobel died in 1896 – McRoberts in Scotland in January and Nobel in Italy in December. The worldwide Nobel business empire at the time consisted of more than 90 factories manufacturing explosives and ammunition.
A new factory was opened at Linlithgow in 1902. It was named the Regent Factory in a nod to Linlithgow’s link with the Regent of Scotland James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, who was assassinated in Linlithgow in 1570. His death was the first recorded assassination by a firearm, so it seems fitting that this name was chosen for an explosives factory. (A plaque on the wall of the Court Residence on the High Street commemorates the assassination). The Nobel factory was located at the end of High Street where Tesco and the Regent Square flats are today. It manufactured safety fuses for the mining industry, mining explosives and detonators.
After the war the Linlithgow factory diversified into other chemicals and was a significant employer locally until production finished in the 1970s. During demolition of the buildings in 1982, a time capsule was discovered containing documents and coins from 1902. When the new shopping centre was built, the 1902 capsule was re-buried along with a contemporary capsule behind the same plaque.
At the onset of war in 1914 Nobel’s in Linlithgow successfully tendered for the War Office contract to provide guns, shells, small arms and ammunitions. Ironically given Alfred’s will, the Regent factory flourished and expanded as the war continued. Work also continued at Ardeer and Westquarter in the production and development of explosives and detonators throughout and after the two world wars. At its peak during World War II, the Westquarter works employed 1,700 people, predominantly women, producing detonators.
Ironically given Alfred’s will, the Regent factory flourished and expanded as the war continued.
Nothing remains today of the Scottish armaments factories at Westquarter or Linlithgow, although walking the sites for this article I found the old swing bridge in the canal at Reddingmuirhead. There are very few references to the industry, even in street names. Nobel didn’t want his legacy to be about armaments and explosives though, so perhaps just as well the name is fading here, and his famous prizes take centre stage.
Photos: The swing bridge in 1930 linking the Reddingmuir and Westquarter factories across the Union Canal (photo Historic Environment Scotland); and the bridge today.
Merchant of Death
In 1888, Nobel was shocked to read his own obituary in a newspaper. Entitled “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” it was a case of mistaken identity as it was Alfred's brother Ludvig who had died. However it made Alfred think about how he would be remembered, and he eventually changed his will, specifying that his fortune be used to create prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The peace element is awarded to 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.” Alfred Nobel died in December 1896 in his villa in San Remo, Italy, from a cerebral haemorrhage.
A spoonful of high explosive - for your heart
Nitroglycerin is used to treat angina and high blood pressure, amongst other things, and is a World Health Association Essential Medicine. Don’t try this at home, but diluting it makes it non-explosive...
Alfred Nobel was bothered with poor health throughout his life, and when first prescribed nitroglycerin in 1890 he refused it. A couple of months before his death in 1896 however, he wrote:
“My heart trouble will keep me here in Paris for another few days at least, until my doctors are in complete agreement about my immediate treatment. Isn’t it the irony of fate that I have been prescribed N/G 1 [nitroglycerin] to be taken internally! They call it Trinitrin, so as not to scare the chemist and the public.”
Published in Konect February 2020
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer