A Nobel Cause

01 Dec 2007
A Nobel Cause

Alfred Nobel was a man of enormous contrasts and contradictions: a great scientist with a hankering for philosophy; a multimillionaire who lived frugally; a man world-famous but intensely private, shunning publicity. Most importantly to history, he was the man who invented explosives but earned lasting fame for a peace prize. Fame and glory have come to many people by being associated with his name, even though Nobel himself had no interest in fame or glory.

Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Nobel also reminds us through the awarding of his prizes each year that even a great industrialist and businessman can remain an idealist.

Alfred Nobel came from a scientific family. One of his ancestors, Olof Rudbeck, was a prominent Swedish scientist of the 17th century. His father, Immanuel Nobel, was an industrialist who invented, among other things, the landmine, which is now attracting so much international attention.

Alfred was born in Stockholm in 1833, attending school there before the family moved to St Petersburg in Russia, where Immanuel Nobel set up an engineering and armaments company.

Nobel was educated privately in Russia along with his brothers, and was encouraged by his father to be inventive and inquisitive.

At the age of 17, the precocious Nobel departed on a tour of western Europe, where he hoped to make business contacts and develop ideas for his father's company. He visited Germany, France, Italy and eventually the United States. Although he never officially attended college or university, he improved his knowledge of chemistry and, at the same time, became an expert linguist, learning to speak fluent French, German, English and Russian in addition to his native Swedish during this period.

Nobel's casual education came to an end when his father's armaments company collapsed with the ending of the Crimean War and subsequent cancellation of orders for war material by the Russian government. Immanuel Nobel eventually became bankrupt and returned to Sweden. Nobel also returned home, where he started to work independently, showing more inventive flair and greater business skills than his father.

In 1863, he succeeded in exploding nitroglycerine by using a detonation of gunpowder. He patented the new invention and set to work at once to exploit it, establishing factories for its manufacture in Sweden, Germany and the United States. His father had already developed an efficient way of producing nitroglycerine on a factory scale.

Two years later, Nobel invented the mercury-fulminate detonator, the basis of all future high explosives. By the 1870s, he had patented gelignite, called Nobel's Extra Dynamite, which was more resistant than dynamite to moisture and water. Ballistite, also based on nitroglycerine, followed: the smokeless projectile propellant became widely used by the military for missiles, torpedoes and ammunition.

The dangerous nature of the chemicals Nobel was producing attracted much criticism of his factories and the numerous accidental explosions that took place during either storage or transit. Nobel himself was adopted by the media as a public enemy. Stung into action by the criticism, Nobel set about trying to improve his nitroglycerine invention, attempting to absorb the unstable liquid in a solid base. He eventually achieved this in 1867, when he patented dynamite which, although it had far less blasting efficiency, was solid and highly stable, and thus easily handled.

Nobel promoted the new product energetically but of all his inventions, it was dynamite that rapidly made him one of the world's richest men.

However, his inventions were not confined to the explosives that made his fortune. He lodged more than 300 patents in fields covering electrochemistry, biology, optics and physiology, and was also involved in the manufacture of artificial silk, rubber, leather and semiprecious stones. Nobel was something of a financial genius, building up 80 companies in 20 countries to look after his concerns; he also took over Bofors, the huge Swedish armaments company.

Although Nobel became the head of a massive international industrial empire, he was a reserved and shy man, and remained an enigma thanks to his refusal to provide biographical material.

He was known to be melancholy, with a deep interest in literature and philosophy.

He hated both his character and appearance and was never to marry.

“My miserable existence should have been terminated at birth by a humane doctor,” he once commented sadly to his brother. He seldom enjoyed good health and, as he grew older, Nobel became increasingly ill and nervous. As if to escape from the mysterious sadness and depressions that afflicted him, he frequently moved houses: the 1860s saw him living in Hamburg, the 1870s in Paris. Nobel became increasingly lonely and isolated as he grew older.

He travelled ceaselessly, setting up factories in various countries and moving from Paris to San Remo in Italy, where he died in 1896. Obsessive to the point of neurosis about being accidentally buried alive, his will instructed that his veins be opened and his body cremated.

In 1888, Nobel's unease with life had been compounded when he read his own obituary in a newspaper, written by a careless journalist who had confused him with his brother. For Nobel it was a great shock, since for the first time he saw himself as the outside world saw him: an industrialist who had amassed his wealth from weapons and the invention of dynamite. In fact, Nobel had never intended his explosives for wartime use but for road building and mining, and he had long felt guilty that he had invented substances that were a means of destruction and death.

His greatest wish was to see an end to armed conflict, and toward the end of his life he dedicated much of his time and money to this cause.

Nobel wanted his will to show the public how he really felt about the world, and to symbolise his hopes and ideals for peace. He left the bulk of his massive estate to endow annual prizes for those who, in the preceding year, had most benefited the world in five subjects: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. (A further prize in economics was established in 1969, the money contributed by a Swedish bank).

The peace prize was closest to his heart, and in his will he wrote it should go to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for brotherhood between nations, for the abolition or reduction of permanent armies and for the organisation or encouragement of peace conferences.” Fortunately, his family were prevailed upon not to contest the will, which, surprisingly enough, lacked the legality to make it binding. His estate was liquidated and some 33 million Swedish kronor— about $US9 million, a massive sum in those days— put into trust.

The prizes were first awarded in 1901 and today are worth more than $A1.8 million. The nominees are proposed by scientists and academics from around the world, and are submitted to the appropriate committees for scrutiny and a final vote. Prizes may be shared among two or three people, given to an organisation or not given at all. In accordance with Nobel's will, members of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences determine the recipients of the physics, chemistry and economic prizes, while the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm determines the recipient of the medical prize.

Swedes were shocked to learn that Nobel gave a committee chosen by the Norwegian parliament the right to judge the winner of the Peace Prize, since at the time Norway was in the process of breaking ties with Sweden and achieving independence. The King of Sweden called the decision “unpatriotic”

and made little effort to disguise his resentment. Today, however, it is still Sweden's monarch who bestows the Nobel medals, which have become the most prestigious prizes in the world.

The prizes are awarded in Stockholm, with the exception of the prize for peace, awarded in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.

Nobel once wrote, “I do not see that I have deserved any fame and I have no taste for it.” It is ironic that a man so retiring and modest in his life should become so well known throughout the world since his death. It is perhaps fitting, however, that his name lives on today, associated more with peace than with the compounds he invented, which made him so successful.

Nobel never wanted to be famous but perhaps in the end, he would have agreed that he couldn't have been famous for a better cause.


Susan Johnstone