The not-so-noble tale of the Nobel Prize
Alfred Nobel is known today for creating the Nobel Peace Prize, but did you know he was an arms dealer and the inventor of dynamite? During his life he made a fortune coming up with more efficient explosives and weapons that armed the countries of Europe just in time for WWI. He didn’t think much about the devastating effects of his weapons, until a French newspaper thought he died and ran the headline “The Merchant of Death Dies.” The article made him rethink his legacy and how the world viewed him. In the end he created the Nobel Prize, but during his life he did nearly nothing to advance the cause of peace and only grew Europe’s capacity to wage war.
1. Kids, we’re moving to Russia to found an arms factory
Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born on October 21, 1833 in Stockholm. He was science pedigree from the first. His father was an inventor and was a descendant of a well-known Swedish scientist and a writer named Olaus Rudbeck, and similar pursuits by Nobel led him to become one of the most successful chemists in history.
Considering where Nobel came from it’s a wonder he rose to such prominence and wealth. The future creator of the Nobel Peace Prize was the third of eight children, but his family was so impoverished only himself and three brothers made it to adulthood. That’s why, when Nobel was nine years old, his father moved the family to Russia to open an arms factory.
2. A lucrative business
The future inventor of dynamite got his start with explosives in his dad’s factory in St. Petersburg. While his father (shown below) was unsuccessful at making any money in Sweden, his supplying of the Tsar’s armies was extremely profitable. This newfound wealth enabled Nobel’s parents to pay for private tutoring.
It’s almost unbelievable that a man who would become such a chemistry prodigy received nearly no formal education, as he only spent 18 months in school in Sweden. What he did receive however, was a few years of private tutoring where he learned English, French, Russian, German, and became fluent in chemical composition.
3. Nobel was always on the move
By the time Nobel was 18 years old, he was ready to fly the coup. This would become a common theme in his life, as he moved around constantly and liked to brag that he was “a citizen of the world.” So in 1850 he traveled to Paris where met and studied under the inventor of nitroglycerin.
Ascanio Sobrero was more reluctant than proud of his exceptionally unpredictable explosive. Not only was nitroglycerin unpredictable, but it was far more destructive than black powder, which was the prevailing method for boom for centuries. That’s why Sobrero warned Nobel to stay away from it. But Nobel didn’t listen.
4. His pops made a lot of money during war
In 1853 Nobel was summoned back to St. Petersburg to work in his father’s factory. In that year the Tsar’s armies fought for control of the Black Sea in the Crimean War. The three-year fight was one of a handful of wars that led to WWI, and eventually WWII. During the Crimean War, Nobel’s father made a fortune and expanded production to meet the needs of the large Russian army.
But Russia had seemingly got in over its head, as it took on not only the Ottoman Empire, but their strong allies Britain and France. Tsar Nicolas I would need many weapons for his war (interestingly, his son Tsar Alexander II would die because of Nobel’s greatest invention), and the Nobel family was happy to oblige.
5. We want a bigger boom
Though nitroglycerin had been discovered in 1846, it was not weaponized because of it being so incredibly volatile. That means that the Crimean War was fought with much the same explosive compound that had dominated battlefields for centuries: gun powder.
Early in the Crimean War, the Russians were forced to evacuate the strategic port of Sevastopol, and in typical Russian fashion they employed a scorched earth policy. Before they were routed from their stronghold, they blew up several forts and ships so as to not let them fall into enemy hands. They used powder, and it was evident to Nobel that there was a demand for much more powerful explosives.
6. When the war ended, so did the cash flow
The Crimean War ended poorly for Russia and they effectively lost control of the Black Sea. The end of the war in 1856 was equally bad for the Nobel family, as the newfound peace eliminated their primary customer. Without anyone to buy their weapons, the Nobel family business went bankrupt.
The family business did remain alive in St. Petersburg under the supervision of Nobel’s brother Ludvig (seen above). Nobel and his father returned to Stockholm, and Nobel began taking an interest in industrial engineering. He helped build bridges and buildings, but during this time he became far more interested in blasting rocks out of the way than construction.
7. A lit fuse
In 1860 Nobel went against Ascanio Sobrero’s advice and began experimenting with nitroglycerin. Despite it’s propensity to explode when heated or under pressure, Nobel understood its powerful potential. If he could harness its power, it would be far more effective at blasting away mountainsides and rock formations.
In the years that followed, Nobel was successful in creating a number of inventions that made the use of nitroglycerin safer. Nobel achieved his first patent in 1857, and in 1861, he received another when he invented a detonator for nitroglycerin that used a powerful shock rather than a flame to set it off. Then, an event took place that would change his attitudes forever.
8. Playing with fire leads to tragedy
The Nobel family could see the promise in their experiments with nitroglycerin, and in 1864, Nobel’s father founded the company Nitroglycerin AB. But even with their extreme efforts to make the process safer, the Nobel’s were struck with tragedy for playing with the volatile compound that its inventor warned them not to medal with.
In the same year, Nitroglycerin AB was founded the powerful force of nitroglycerin was unleashed in a Nobel factory explosion that killed five people, which included Alfred’s younger brother Emil. Nobel was struck with grief, and resolved from then on to make the handling of nitroglycerin safer.
9. Dynamite is born
In 1865 Alfred Nobel & Co. Factory was opened in a town near Hamburg, Germany. In that same year, Nobel invented and patented a blasting cap for nitroglycerin. A year later, he made his greatest discovery of all, when he combined nitroglycerin with silica, which is a compound found in many rocks.
The result of this mixture created a paste substance we know now as dynamite. From the Greek word “dynamis,” meaning “power,” Nobel’s 1867 invention drastically accelerated the industrial revolution, as new frontiers became passable via railroad, and nations could shape their landscapes however they saw fit. The Nobel family made an absolute killing.
10. Hurray! We can shape the landscapes however we want!
It’s been argued that dynamite was the most important invention in the industrial age. With the advent the safe, predictable substance that could be shaped into tubes and lit with a fuse, many geological obstacles became surmountable, and production increased a hundred fold in many industries.
All of the sudden, mining companies had the means to blast their way deeper into the earth’s crust, extracting minerals and gems. Dynamite also enabled the building of bigger dams to supply electricity, and allowed for roads and railroads to overcome rough terrain. And then of course, there was the dark side of Nobel’s invention.
11. Some shady backdoor dealings
In 1870 conflict found its way to the European continent once again, as Napoleon III of France went to war with a number of German states headed by Prussia. The Franco Prussian war that followed would last less than a year, but employed a new weapon of unprecedented power.
According to sources, no piece of evidence exists that lets us know how Alfred Nobel felt about his invention being used as a weapon. But what is know is that his partner did solicit Emperor Napoleon III for the use of dynamite during the war. A production factory was immediately set up in France.
12. Laying groundwork for the World Wars
Despite this technological advantage, France faired very poorly in the Franco Prussian War. Napoleon III largely got into the fight to unify his country, and what resulted was the first unification of a German state in history. And the war was also a sign of things to come.
The Franco Prussian War is seen as the true predecessor to WWI. Alfred Nobel would not be alive by the time that cataclysmic conflict killed millions of people on desperate battlefields. Nobel seemed to not be terribly worried about such horrific events occurring. Instead, he focused his attention on making a weapon so terrible that commanders wouldn’t even consider sending their soldiers into battle to fight.
13. Blood money
Nobel was not the only one with the idea of building a weapon so horrible that it would halt all forms of bloody conflict. Robert Oppenheimer had similar thoughts after he developed the atomic bomb, and Richard Gatling was horrified when commanders didn’t hesitate to send waves of soldiers against his machine guns.
So while Nobel was amassing a ridiculous fortune, as orders for dynamite came in from all around the world, he didn’t sit on his laurels and count his money. He tried to develop better explosives. And even though his deep devotion to his work made him lonely, he did have a few lovers in his life.
14. Flirtin’ with the housekeeper
Sources say that Alfred Nobel had three known lovers in his life, but he never married. He preferred to live life alone for the most part, and though he kept his residence in Paris, his network of factories all over Europe kept him traveling most of the time.
His first love was a Russian woman named Alexandra, who he actually proposed to. She turned him down. The lover that would have the most lasting effect on Alfred was Bertha von Suttner, who answered an ad in 1876 to become Nobel’s secretary/housekeeper because she was fleeing an engagement of her own.
15. The woman in Nobel’s ear
The impact of Bertha von Suttner on the life of Alfred Nobel, and in turn the impact she had on the world, is of great importance. Suttner was the daughter of a former Austrian Field Marshall and was a deeply passionate pacifist. When she and Nobel met, she was engaged to a man who was seven years younger than her, and the man’s family was opposed to the marriage.
Suttner then fled to Paris where she went to work for Nobel. It seems the two may have developed a romantic relationship, but Suttner would be gone within a week and marry the man she was engaged to. However, Suttner and Nobel would see each other in the future, and keep up a correspondence that would last his entire life.
16. An even BIGGER boom
Despite the fact that Nobel didn’t have much success with the ladies, career wise he was on roll. In 1876 he invented a substance that was even more powerful than dynamite. By combining nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose, he developed an explosive compound that was more water resistance and more powerful.
Gelignite, as it was called, brought Nobel even more wealth, as the number of factories under his ownership began to mushroom. His wealth even reached into the hundreds of millions. But as his success continued to soar, an event happened in 1888 that would change his life forever and make him rethink his legacy.
17. When his brother died, the press thought it was him and shredded him
On April 12, 1888 Nobel received news that his brother Ludvig had died in Paris. A careless French reporter though it was Alfred Nobel who had died, and published the following headline: “Le marchand de la mort est mort,” which means, “the merchant of death is dead.”
The reception from this news was that of jubilation by the public at large. Nobel was appalled, and the case of mistaken identity would have a profound effect on the Swedish chemist, and caused him to reflect on his life and beliefs in a manner not always common with successful people. The seed was effectively planted that he had to do something to change his legacy.
18. A near death experience made him rethink his legacy
Upon reflecting on his personal life, Nobel once said, “I am a misanthrope and yet utterly benevolent, have more than one screw loose, yet am a super-idealist who digests philosophy more efficiently than food.” The quote reveals what he thinks of himself, and is also sort of odd, as he fully recognizes that he was bit of a recluse.
In fact, he was so much a recluse that he began rethinking his personal life too. One time, Nobel was terribly ill and his life was in jeopardy. As he lay on his bed clinging to life, only one person came to help him, and that person was an employee. No family or loved one was there for him at that moment. His life was due for a change.
19. The return of his lover
Nobel would only see Bertha von Suttner two more times after their brief love affair in 1876, and the last of those meetings was at a meeting of a peace congress in Bern. The meeting was in August of 1892, and Suttner was a participant in the meeting.
Suttner was already well known and would receive international recognition for her pacifist beliefs. In a time when Nobel was open to ideas that would change his blood-speckled legacy, Suttner found a ready listener. As the meeting unfolded, it was evident that Nobel was beginning to rethink more than a few things.
20. Nobel thought if he created something destructive enough, people would be too scared to go to war
At the meeting Nobel said, “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on 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.”
It’s evident that Nobel was still after that super weapon to end all war, but it was Suttner who had a different idea. In 1899 she published a book called Lay Down Your Arms, which outlined her anti-war beliefs, and implored the leaders in Europe to stop adopting a militaristic stance. At a male dominated meeting Suttner was a forceful contributor.
21. “Convince me” (to stop selling explosives)
In 1891, the year before the congress in Bern, Suttner established the Austrian Peace Society. It’s reported that Nobel once said to Suttner, “Inform me, convince me, and then I will do something great for the movement.” Nobel was ready to redefine his legacy, but not redefine his life.
It’s interesting to note the paradox that unfolded in Nobel’s life, as he was certainly aware at this point that his choice to openly weaponize his product had resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. While he did create the Nobel Peace Prize, he never slowed down his production of arms.
22. 90 arms factories
Back in the year 1888 when Nobel’s brother died, the article that mistook his brother for him read, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before…” Even after the words of this article sunk in, and Suttner’s influence on him, Nobel showed no signs of slowing down.
In fact, Nobel only increased his production as European nations armed themselves to the teeth knowing that war was inevitable. By the 1890s Nobel owned and operated 90 arms factories spread out over the entire European continent, and even then he still expanded his production.
23. The mother of all arms factories
In 1894 Nobel purchased the Bofos factory in Sweden. As of today, the Bofos factory has been in business for over 350 years producing arms made from steel. When Nobel took it over, he made over the entire production line making it greater geared for wars of the future.
Industry in the late 1800s had figured out how to make large guns out of steel, and while the Bofos factory was already doing this, Nobel increased the size to cannons. He also developed their production of chemicals used in explosives, and the factory was well oiled for the impending world war.
24. The merchant of death dies quietly in his sleep
In 1896, at the age of 63 years old, Alfred Nobel died of a stroke while at one of his homes in San Remo, Italy. To his dying day, he would still spend time in the laboratory inventing new products for destruction. All told, when he died he had 355 patents to his name.
Nobel’s body was taken back to the city of Stockholm where it was interred. The man who made a killing off of selling arms and producing chemicals didn’t tell his family about the plans he had for his fortune. Though he didn’t have any children, his closest kin were about to get the shock of their lives.
25. A surprise in the will
In 1895, the year before Nobel died, he signed his last will and testament. He designated more than 90% of his fortune to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes, which were meant to reward the most outstanding scientific achievements every year, and there was another award for the pursuit of peace.
Bertha von Suttner is largely credited with convincing Nobel to include the award for peace. In his will it reads that award should go, “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
26. Did it all for the nookie
Nobel’s family was shocked to see that he awarded 31,225,000 Swedish kronor, or nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in today’s money, for something he only told one person about. After he signed his will on November 27, 1895, the first and only person he told was Suttner.
Suttner is said to have responded by saying, “Whether I am around then or not does not matter; what we have given, you and I, is going to live on.” The paradox continues even after his death, and it largely agreed that Nobel followed the belief of the times that the consequences of scientific discovery don’t reside the scientist or inventor, as men were free to make their own mistakes with new technologies.
27. Suttner got the award
For her part, Suttner was recognized for her efforts toward the cause of peace and for convincing Nobel to create the Nobel prizes. The first Nobel Peace award was issued in 1901 and went to Henry Dunant, who created the Red Cross in 1881.
Bertha von Suttner became the Nobel Peace Prize’s first female recipient in 1905. By that time she was widely known as the “generalissimo of the peace movement.” Fortunately for her, she would not live to see the war that she worked her whole life to prevent, as she died just a month before opening actions in WWI.
28. Two wrongs don’t make a right
WWI was by far the worst war the world had seen, until decades later WWII, aptly titled for its continuation of the previous conflict, trumped that conflict by killing even more people. The numbers are staggering, as it’s estimated that the two wars killed 100 million people.
At the time he was producing arms, Alfred Nobel felt he played no part in gearing European nations for war. But he went to great lengths to make sure each country could play their part, as his factories were set up to feed the war machines of individual nations, ensuring that the meat grinder of battle would be equally devastating for both sides. The tactic was called “a balance of terror.”
29. Even Einstein called him out
Whether he actually believed that commanders would avoid conflict based on their enemy’s ability to match them on the battlefield is a point to question. But Nobel’s paradox was addressed in 1945, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Albert Einstein said toward the end of 1945, “Alfred Nobel invented an explosive more powerful than any then known — an exceedingly effective means of destruction. To atone for this ‘accomplishment’ and to relieve his conscience, he instituted his award for the promotion of peace.” That’s harsh criticism from the man TIME magazine called, “Man of the Century.”
30. “The destroyer of worlds”
Similar dilemmas have confronted many other scientists and inventors over the years. Richard Gatling invented the Gatling Gun, the world’s first machine gun, thinking it would replace entire regiments of troops (not the most intuitive line of thought, but okay). Instead, they were incorporated into military strategy mowed them down like fodder.
Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics three times, said while he was watching his invention first tested, all he could hear in his head was an ancient Hindu text that read, “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
31. Sir Joseph Rotblat did what Nobel tried to do
Upon the conclusion of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer and the other scientists who helped create the atomic bomb petitioned then President Truman to not drop the bomb on Japan. They were unsuccessful in their effort, but would perhaps gain solace if they knew it was the only time it was used on people.
Perhaps Nobel doesn’t deserve our praise for his efforts, but his legacy has certainly had a positive impact on the world. In 1995 Sir Joseph Rotblat won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts toward nuclear proliferation. Rotblat was one of the scientists that worked on the Manhattan Project, then spent the rest of his life trying to rid the world of his devastating invention. That is praiseworthy indeed, and deserving of a Nobel Prize.