Alfred Nobel was born on the 21st October 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden, into a family of engineers. He was a chemist, engineer, and inventor. In the year 1894, Alfred Nobel purchased the Bofors iron and steel mill, which he made into a major armaments manufacturer. Nobel also invented ballistite. This invention was a precursor to many smokeless military explosives, especially the British smokeless powder cordite.
One incident that changed his life was when a nitroglycerin factory he built exploded, killing one of his brothers. Yet the chemist had a feeling he was on the cusp of an invention that would change the world, so he continued his work. In 1867, he discovered that mixing nitroglycerin with kieselguhr, an earthy silica used as filler in chemicals, made the nitroglycerin safer to handle and allowed for better control over explosions. He called the blend “dynamite,” stemming from the Greek word for power, dynamis, and was soon granted patents for his invention in Europe and the US.
Business boomed. Controlled explosions found numerous uses, including canal cutting, road building, tunnel blasting, and more. Nobel built factories and amassed a fortune. He refined dynamite continually, creating an even stronger explosive called “blasting gelatin” in 1875.
This made him amass a huge fortune during his lifetime, with most of his wealth coming from his 355 inventions, of which dynamite is the most famous. According to the 19th-century Austrian peace activist, novelist, and countess Bertha von Suttner, when she first met Nobel in 1876, the chemist told her he hoped to invent a material so explosive it would end war itself. In 1891, Nobel justified his 90 explosive and armaments factories to the peace activist, saying,
“The day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”
This was a gross miscalculation. Wars continued, and nations didn’t recoil. And later Nobel prize winners would relate to the scientist’s seeming misgivings about his life’s work.
In 1888, Nobel was astonished to read his own obituary, titled The merchant of death is dead, in a French newspaper. It was Alfred’s brother Ludvig who had died and the obituary was eight years premature. The article seriously worried Alfred Nobel and made him apprehensive about how he would be remembered. This inspired him to change his will.
When he died in 1896, Nobel left a fund in his will for the creation of the eponymous prizes, first awarded in 1901. It included a grant for the person who accomplished:
“The most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the promotion of peace congresses.”
Nobel had decreed that the bulk of his estate should be invested in “safe securities” and, as a result, about 31.5 million Swedish kronor, equivalent today to about 2.2 billion kronor ($222 million) were used to create the Nobel Foundation.
The will specified that equal prizes should be given for the “most important discovery” in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine, as well as the “most outstanding work in an ideal direction” in the world of literature.
A fifth prize would be for peace, “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.
When Nobel died childless and the will was read, the contents surprised many, including his own family.
Two nephews tried to have it nullified, and even King Oscar II of Sweden opposed Nobel’s wishes, saying they were not “patriotic minded”.
Adding to the confusion, Nobel had not appointed an executor for the testament, nor had he consulted the various institutions he had assigned to award the prizes to ensure that they were willing to undertake the task.
After more than three years of haggling, the Nobel Foundation was created to manage the capital in the inventor’s estate, and four institutions agreed to award the prizes as Nobel had wished.
In Stockholm, the Karolinska Institute awards the Medicine Prize, the Swedish Academy handles Literature, and the Royal Academy of Sciences has responsibility for Physics, Chemistry and Economics.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, meanwhile, awards the Peace Prize.
Since 1901, the year the first Nobel Prizes were awarded, the Nobel Foundation has funded the awards.
This year’s laureates will receive nine million kronor ($908,000) per award, to be shared if there are several winners in one discipline.
The Nobel Prize for Economics, the only award not included in Nobel’s will, is funded by the Swedish Central Bank, which created the prize to mark its 300th anniversary in 1968. It was first awarded in 1969.
AFRICA DAILY NEWS, NEW YORK