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18 October 2019

Alfred Nobel, founder of the prizes

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Each October, a handful of people are elevated to a category that distinguishes them from other mere mortals: Nobel Prize laureates. The Swedish awards do not come with the largest financial endowment, nor are they usually the reference point for those wishing to discover the most ground-breaking current scientific research. The Atlantic has argued that the Nobel Prizes in Science “distort the nature of the scientific enterprise, rewrite its history, and overlook many of its most important contributors”. But there are no other awards that can match them in prestige. And while most people are aware of the existence of Nobel Prize winners, it may come as a surprise that their founder was not born as a benefactor of humanity, but rather the opposite.

Retrato de Alfred Nobel. Fuente: Wikimedia

The Swedish inventor, scientist and entrepreneur Alfred Nobel (October 21, 1833 – December 10, 1896) developed a curious interest through the family business: explosives. His father, engineer Immanuel Nobel, experimented with these substances for their usefulness in construction projects, but bad luck with business led him to bankruptcy just about the time his son Alfred was born. In search of new horizons, Immanuel emigrated to St. Petersburg, where he came across an opportunity to design naval mines for the Russian tsar. Thus, the course that Alfred and his three brothers would follow was already set.

Investigating the potential of nitroglycerin

After studying in Russia with private tutors, Alfred was sent abroad to train as a chemical engineer. During his stay in Paris in the laboratory of chemist Théophile-Jules Pelouze, he met Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who three years earlier had invented nitroglycerin. Sobrero was horrified by his own invention, which he considered completely useless due to its dangerousness and the care required to handle it safely. However, Nobel was intrigued by this volatile substance, more explosive than gunpowder, and decided to investigate mixtures and devices in order to take advantage of its potential.

Along this path, Nobel would find both success with sorrow. Among the former, there was the invention of the fuse and many other patents. With respect to the latter, the explosions that cost the lives of several people, including his brother Emil in 1864, and which led the Swedish government to ban these experiments in the city of Stockholm, which in turn led Nobel to locate his workshop on a barge on Lake Mälaren.

Interior del laboratorio Alfred Nobel, en el Museo Nobel en Karlskoga, Suecia. Crédito: Banza52

Meanwhile, his family’s arms business was dealing with the ups and downs of alternating periods of war and peace. And the two older brothers found their own niche in oil exploitation in southern Russia.

It was around this time that Nobel achieved the greatest of his accomplishments: by mixing nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth, he created a more stable and manageable paste, which in 1867 he patented under the name of dynamite. Later came gelignite, an even more potent and safer gelatinous substance, along with other products such as ballistite. The explosives created by Nobel spread rapidly around the world and brought great benefits to engineering and mining. But inevitably, they were also used intensively for war purposes. And Nobel was by no means oblivious to these interests: in the final years of his life he devoted most of his efforts to the development of armaments and ammunition.

The merchant of death

It was for this reason that, during his lifetime, Alfred Nobel managed to forge a reputation very different from the one that adorns his famous awards today. In his correspondence with Austrian author and pacifist Bertha von Suttner, Nobel defended his position by claiming that he intended to invent the ultimate weapon in order to put an end to all wars. But his rhetoric failed to convince others. It is said that when his brother Ludvig died of a heart attack in 1888, a French newspaper that had confused the deceased’s identity with that of Alfred published a scathing obituary entitled: “The merchant of death is dead”. This summary of his legacy supposedly had a devastating effect on Nobel.

Carta de Alfred Nobel a Bertha von Suttner. Fuente: Wikimedia

It is not clear whether this story is true or just a legend, but when Nobel in his last will and testament indicated his wish to use his fortune to create the awards we know today, many were surprised, especially with the prize dedicated to peace. Whether it was the influence of Von Suttner or that of the obituary that inspired this decision is something that Nobel took to the grave. But if he wanted posterity to associate his name more with the positive aspects of humanity than with war, there is no doubt that he more than achieved his goal.

Javier Yanes


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