Science history: The merchant of death who commemorated peace
Alfred Nobel made explosives and armaments. His will revealed a desire to reward human goodness. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
When the contents of Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament were revealed, following his death on December 10, 1896, many were surprised that he had placed most of vast wealth in a trust, which would, he wrote, “constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”.
Alfred Bernhard Nobel, born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden, had amassed a fortune through the development and manufacture of explosives. Perhaps his original intent had been benign, to benefit construction, mining and other worthwhile industries, but it is undeniable that his products were readily adapted for use in engines of war and killing, and that he himself owned factories producing armaments.
It isn’t known for certain why Nobel established the prizes that bear his name, but one commonly told explanation is that when, in 1888, his brother Ludvig passed away, many newspapers said it was Alfred who had died, including one that wrote, “the merchant of death is dead”.
Not wanting to leave such a grim legacy, he reportedly decided to establish the Nobel prizes.
The Nobel Prize website offers a different explanation, crediting Nobel’s long relationship with Bertha von Suttner, who was “a prominent figure in the peace movement”, and author of the book Lay Down Your Arms.
Several years after his death, the Norwegian parliament gave the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to von Suttner.
As a scientist and inventor, Nobel held more than 350 patents, by no means all related to explosives. According to the New World Encyclopedia, he also explored the manufacture of synthetic silk, rubber, and semiprecious stones, and also optics, electrochemistry, and biology.
Arguably, Alfred’s career kicked off because of his father’s disapproval of his youthful desire to write poetry. The old man sent him abroad in 1850 for training in chemical engineering. During a two-year period, Alfred visited Sweden, Germany, France and the United States. In Paris he met Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine, a highly explosive but unstable liquid.
In 1863, says Nobel’s biography in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, working to control the power of nitroglycerine, he invented a “practical detonator consisting of a wooden plug inserted into a larger charge of nitroglycerin held in a metal container.
“This detonator marked the beginning of Nobel’s reputation as an inventor as well as the fortune he was to acquire as a maker of explosives. In 1865 Nobel invented an improved detonator called a blasting cap; it consisted of a small metal cap containing a charge of mercury fulminate that can be exploded by either shock or moderate heat. The invention of the blasting cap inaugurated the modern use of high explosives.”
Nitroglycerin, however, remain untamed; Nobel’s nitroglycerin factory blew up in 1864, killing his younger brother Emil and several other people.
In 1867, he invented dynamite, having discovered that nitroglycerin dried out if mixed with by diatomaceous earth, and the resulting mixture was much safer to use and easier to handle than nitroglycerin alone.
Nobel named the new product dynamite (from the Greek word dynamis, meaning “power”). The patents he obtained for it in Britain (1867) and the US (1868) established Nobel’s fame worldwide.
It was a fame, however, that was to grow even greater, at least eponymously, following his death soon after suffering a stroke. He was living in Italy at the time, but his remains were interred in his native Stockholm.