Today in history: The Swede responsible for war and for peace

125 years since the passing of Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite and established the fund that awards the world’s most prestigious prize,

 The monument to Alfred Nobel at the Alfred Nobel Planet memorial park (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The monument to Alfred Nobel at the Alfred Nobel Planet memorial park
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“All of my remaining realizable assets are to be disbursed as follows: the capital, converted to safe securities by my executors, is to constitute a fund, the interest on which is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. Signed by Alfred Bernhard Nobel, November 27th, 1895.

This was the last and most important part of the will written by Alfred Nobel a year prior to his death. Nobel’s story begins on October 21st, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden, where he was born to Immanuel and Karolina Andriette Nobel. Alfred was their third son and one of eight children.

His father, Immanuel, was an engineer, architect, inventor and industrialist, who worked in the construction of bridges and buildings. Having failed in his business he filed for bankruptcy and decided to immigrate alone to the city of St. Petersburg in Russia. There, he embarked on a new career and began manufacturing military equipment for the Tzar. Among other things, he manufactured naval mines for the defense of the city’s port, a move that turned out to be highly successful and profitable, and years later, during the Crimean War, prevented British ships from approaching the port. 

But the Nobel family's romance with explosives had only just begun.

The father’s business flourished and in 1842 the entire family moved to Russia and Alfred and his brothers received excellent private education. By seventeen, he mastered five languages – Swedish, Russian, German, French and English and was both well-versed in English literature and showed great proficiency in physics and chemistry. His father wanted him to become an engineer like himself, and sent him on internships to chemistry labs across Europe and the United States.

The fateful meeting that changed the course of a life

On one of his trips to Paris, young Alfred met the Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who in those days had invented nitroglycerin, a powerful but unstable liquid explosive. In 1852 Alfred returned to Russia, and while helping with the family business, he continued to try and find a method for commercial manufacture of nitroglycerin, which would avoid dangerous explosions during the process of production and transport. However, following the end of the Crimean war in 1856, the Russian Army, the main client of the Nobel family business, no longer required many orders, which led to an additional bankruptcy. In 1863, Immanuel, Alfred and his brother Emil returned to Sweden. Two other brothers remained in Russia and set up a new and very successful oil business.

Alfred continued in his efforts to stabilize nitroglycerin, but a series of tragic work accidents, including one in which his brother Emil and several workmen were killed, prompted the authorities in Stockholm to ban experiments on the problematic explosive within city limits. He did not give up, and being earnestly convinced of the mighty power of “softened” nitroglycerin to contribute to engineering enterprises and to save human life, he transferred his laboratory to a boat on a lake and continued his efforts to stabilize the destructive liquid.

The breakthrough occurred in 1867. To stabilize the nitroglycerin, which tended to explode as a result of the slightest jolt, Nobel mixed it with silicone-rich clay and with sodium carbonate. These substances formed a mixture that was not only much more stable but also retained the properties of nitroglycerin as a powerful explosive. In addition, the wax-like texture of the new substance enabled shaping it into sticks that could be inserted into drilling holes. Today, the clay is usually replaced with sawdust of flour.

Nobel patented the invention, calling it dynamite, inspired by the Greek word 'dynamis', meaning power. In order to control the timing of the explosion of the dynamite sticks, Nobel added an additional invention of his – a detonator, a small device that contains gunpowder and is activated remotely, triggering the explosion.

The dynamite and detonator combination had vast potential for improving the existing methods used for blasting rocks, canal mining, tunnel-digging as well as other engineering projects. The demand for these products rose, as did Alfred Nobel’s personal fortune. He continued to develop and invent, and has registered over the years no less than 355 patents, most of which were related to new explosives, and established 90 factories in 20 countries.

Prizes for the advancement of humankind

Nobel was essentially a pacifist and he objected to wars. Having invented dynamite, his intention was that its destructive power would help people deal with a variety of complex tasks, but many of the factories that acquired the explosives did not use them to mine canals, but rather to produce ammunition for weapons. Nobel was criticized for this involvement in the production of weapons, and when his brother Ludwig passed away in 1888, a French newspaper mistakenly reported Alfred’s death with an obituary for the “Merchant of Death”.

Nobel died on December 10th, 1896 at the age of 63. When his family opened his will, which he had changed numerous times during the last years of his life, they were astonished to discover that he bequeathed 94 percent of his tremendous fortune to a fund that would bear his name. The amount that has accumulated in the fund at the time was nearly 1.7 million pounds sterling, and today is estimated to be around 600 million dollars.

Out of the future interest that the fund bearing his name would yield, Nobel instructed to award each year five identical monetary prizes to people who have made a significant contribution to humankind. Today, the prize in each of the fields is ten million Swedish kronor, which amounts to more than one million dollars.

t first, Nobel Prizes were awarded in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. In 1968 Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank, commemorated its 300th anniversary by donating an additional sum of money to the Nobel Foundation, to be used in order to grant an additional prize to people who have made a significant contribution in the Economic Sciences. Today it is customary to call this prize a Nobel Prize, similar to the five original prizes, but it is in fact a prize that was named in honor of Alfred Nobel – even if its laureates receive an amount identical to that of the other laureates.

Following appeals of family members over their nearly complete disinheritance from Nobel’s will, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded only in 1901, five years following Alfred Nobel’s passing. Among the first laureates were Wilhelm Röntgen, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering X-rays, which were named after him, and Jacobus Henricus van 't Hoff, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the laws governing osmotic pressure in solution.

The death of the man mistakenly dubbed as the “Merchant of Death” was merely the beginning of a long journey. The fund that Nobel instructed to establish has given out prizes for more than a century to hundreds of scientists, thinkers and leaders who have made significant contributions to humankind, and through their actions they were – and still are – a source of inspiration to millions of people around the world.