Today, everyone remembers Alfred Nobel as the man who instituted the Nobel Prize. But, did you know he acquired his wealth by mass producing an explosive?

December 08, 2016 05:00 pm | Updated 05:35 pm IST

NOBLE GESTURE: Awarding those who have been of “greatest benefit to mankind”.

NOBLE GESTURE: Awarding those who have been of “greatest benefit to mankind”.

Talk of newspaper bloomers! “The Merchant of Death is dead”, screamed the headline in a French newspaper referring to Alfred Nobel — this when the man was alive and kicking. Not exactly flattering an obit, right? A case of wrong identity and a damning final appraisal to boot! The common surname was the culprit — yes, Alfred’s brother Ludvig had breathed his last and the newspaper made the unpardonable gaffe of referring to a living man as dead! But something good came of it as history would vouch for. Alfred Nobel was horrified on reading it and had a change of heart. Then along came the epoch-making decision to establish prizes that celebrate the best in human accomplishment. The Nobel Prize, no less.

Alfred was born in 1833, into a poor family in Stockholm where five of his seven siblings died very young. By the time he was 17, he was proficient in five languages — Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. He was keen on literature, but his father Immanuel Nobel dissuaded him and sent him abroad to widen his horizons and further train in chemical engineering. During a two-year period, the teenager visited Germany, France and the U.S. He liked Paris best of all and later made it his home.

Chemical composition

The Italian, Ascanio Sobrero had invented nitroglycerine a couple of years earlier. It was considered too dangerous to be of any use. Its explosive power was far greater than gunpowder and Alfred set his sights on mass production of a safer version. He experimented with different additives and soon found that mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr would do the trick. He chose the word dynamite from the Greek word dynamis meaning power. Alfred also invented the detonator which could be ignited by lighting a fuse. The inventions dramatically reduced the cost of mammoth tasks like blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and other forms of construction work. The synthetic element nobelium was named after him.

Over the next few years, Alfred started factories and laboratories in 90 places spread over 20 countries. In short, he became wealthy. He bought an ironworks in Bofors, near Varmland, that became the nucleus of the well-known Bofors arms factory.

To widespread astonishment, Nobel’s last will specified that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind” in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Nobel bequeathed 94 per cent of his total assets, 31 million SEK to establish the five Nobel Prizes. Because of scepticism surrounding the will, it was not until April 26, 1897 that it was approved by the Stortingin Norway, the Supreme Legislature. The executors of Nobel’s will, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, formed the Nobel Foundation to take care of Nobel’s fortune and organise the award of prizes.

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