The Dark Side of the Nobel Prizes

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For more than 100 years, the Nobel Prizes have recognized the finest in human achievements, from literature and science to the Nobel Peace Prize, which is given "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," according to the last will and testament of founder Alfred Nobel.

But the origins of the Nobel Prizes, and the life of Alfred Nobel, tell a very different story, one tainted by the deaths of untold thousands of people.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden. His father, Immanuel Nobel, was an inventor and engineer who struggled financially for much of his life. Forced to declare bankruptcy, Immanuel left Sweden and began working in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he impressed the czar ith one of his inventions — submerged explosive mines that could thwart a naval invasion. [Quiz: Test Your Nobel Knowledge]    

Finally achieving a measure of success, Immanuel brought his wife and eight children to St. Petersburg. His sons were given a formal education, and Alfred shined under strict Russian tutelage, mastering several languages as well as chemistry, physics, poetry and natural sciences.

Because the elder Nobel disapproved of Alfred's interest in poetry, he sent his son abroad to further his training in chemistry and engineering. While studying in Paris, Nobel met Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who in 1847 invented nitroglycerin, the oily, liquid explosive made by combining glycerin with nitric acid and sulfuric acid.

Innovation from tragedy

Though nitroglycerine was considered too unsafe to have any practical use, the Nobel family — which now had several profitable enterprises in Russia and Sweden — continued to investigate its potential for commercial and industrial uses.

But their inquiries had tragic results: In 1864, Alfred's younger brother Emil and several other people were killed in an explosion at one of their factories in Sweden. The disaster encouraged Alfred to try to find a way to make nitroglycerin safe. Success didn't come easily: Early experiments included the creation of "blasting oil," a mixture of nitro and gunpowder, which resulted in several deadly explosions and once killed 15 people when it exploded in a storeroom in San Francisco.

Finally, in 1867, Alfred Nobel found that by mixing nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth (known as kieselguhr in German), the resulting compound was a stable paste that could be shaped into short sticks that mining companies might use to blast through rock. Nobel patented this invention as "dynamite," from the Greek word dunamis, or "power."

The invention of dynamite revolutionized the mining, construction and demolition industries. Railroad companies could now safety blast through mountains, opening up vast stretches of the Earth's surface to exploration and commerce. As a result, Nobel — who eventually garnered 355 patents on his many inventions — grew fantastically wealthy.

'Merchant of death'

Dynamite, of course, had other uses, and it wasn't long before military authorities began using it in warfare, including dynamite cannons used during the Spanish-American War. Though he's widely credited with being a pacifist, it's not known whether Nobel approved of dynamite's military use or not.

Nonetheless, he found out what others thought of his invention when, in 1888, his brother Ludvig died. Though some journalistic error, Alfred's obituary was widely printed instead, and he was scorned for being the man who made millions through the deaths of others. Once French newspaper wrote "Le marchand de la mort est mort," or "the merchant of death is dead." The obituary went on to describe Nobel as a man "who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before."

Nobel was reportedly stunned by what he read, and as a result became determined to do something to improve his legacy. One year before he died in 1896, Nobel signed his last will and testament, which set aside the majority of his vast estate to establish the five Nobel Prizes, including one awarded for the pursuit of peace.

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