This Week In History: From dynamite to peace prize

By MICHAEL OMER-MAN
November 26, 2010 10:59

115 years ago, the inventor of dynamite decided to leave a legacy rewarding those who “confer greatest benefit on mankind.”

4 minute read.



Alfred Bernhard Nobel

Alfred Bernhard Nobel 311. (photo credit: AP)

On November 27, 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Swedish chemist, engineer and industrialist Alfred Bernhard Nobel signed his last will and testament. The contents of the will would not become known to the world until just over a year later when Nobel died in San Remo, Italy. The inventor of dynamite, the man once described in a premature eulogy as “the merchant of death,” had allocated his estate to the establishment of a trust granting five annual prizes for those who “conferred the greatest benefit upon mankind.” Thus, the Nobel Prize was born.

Alfred Nobel was born in Sweden in 1833. The son of an inventor and engineer, he moved with his family to Russia at the age of nine, where his father owned a factory that made military equipment during the Crimean War. This early exposure to manufacturing the tools of war would greatly influence his life’s work. Although never formally schooled, Nobel spoke five languages, and went on to study chemistry in Paris and the United States. When his father’s company went bankrupt and the family returned to Sweden, Alfred remained in Russia and began experimenting with explosives.

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Nitroglycerin, the active ingredient in dynamite, was a new discovery at the time of Nobel’s experimentations. Despite being an extremely unstable compound, Alfred set up a factory manufacturing the explosive, but with tragic results. In one of several accidental explosions in his first factory, Nobel’s brother was killed in the 1860s. In the same decade, however, he discovered his two most famous and influential inventions: The blasting cap, and dynamite. These two discoveries would transform the world, changing the way tunnels were blasted, canals cut, and the way railways and roads were built.

There is great speculation as to why Nobel left the bulk of his dynamite fortune to establish the annual prizes that still bear his name today. One explanation, however, may shed light on the wide gap between his legacy in the 19th century and the legacy he longed to leave to the world. A few years before his own death, Alfred’s brother died in France. Confusing the two Nobel brothers, French newspapers mistakenly reported Alfred’s passing. One of the headlines run, was, “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (The merchant of death is dead), referring to the destructive role his greatest invention played in the carnage of modern warfare. Perhaps by getting an early look at how he would be remembered, an opportunity most men never have, Alfred Nobel first decided to dramatically alter his legacy. The fight to establish the Nobel Prizes, however, was neither short nor easy.

Five days after Alfred Nobel’s death, his will was unsealed, beginning an international legal battle that would span half a decade. Leaving one’s estate to a trust instead of to heirs was practically unheard of in late 19th century Europe. Understandably, and with much to lose, Nobel’s heirs were not happy with the prospect of losing the massive inheritance with which they had expected to be endowed. The saga of Alfred’s estate would have been fit for a dramatic novel, with the intervention of kings, the smuggling of secret documents across the continent, and very public debates on the merits of promoting international scientific and human advancement.

Unexpectedly, one of the greatest hurdles in setting up the Nobel Foundation was convincing the academies hand-picked by Alfred Nobel to select the prizes’ winners to accept the responsibility. Worried that rewarding the work of international scientists would harm Swedish research and reluctant to involve themselves in a heated, very public inheritance battle, it would take five years for the Swedish scientific institutions to accept the roles they take great pride in today. It took the dedicated work of Nobel’s personal assistant, not yet 30 years of age, and one of his Russian nephews to ensure that Alfred’s dream was realized. In 1900, with an ordinance put forth by the Swedish royal court, the Nobel Foundation was finally established.

One year later, in 1901, the first of the five annual prizes was awarded. For more than a century, 115 years since Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, the Nobel Prize has been one of the most coveted forms of recognition in the world. Although there have been years when the prize was not awarded (mostly during times of war), it has become and continues to be exactly what Alfred Nobel intended: International recognition and prestige for those who “confer the greatest benefit on mankind.” If Nobel were alive today, he would no doubt be satisfied with the legacy he ultimately left the world with, and just maybe, be nominated a Nobel Prize himself.

Among the 817 Nobel Prizes awarded thus far, over 160 have gone to Jews. Nine Israelis have held the honor of being Nobel Laureates, including three prime ministers. Some of the most famous Jewish Nobel Laureates include: Milton Friedman, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Henry Kissinger, Eli Weisel, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.


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