Merchant of Death- The story behind the Nobel Prize!

Every year, a handful of people are honoured and elevated to a reputed title, the ‘Nobel Laureate’, which distinguishes them from others. Celebrated as one of the most coveted awards, the Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the crowning achievement of mankind that marks its scientific, economic, literary and political excellence. No other award can match them in prestige. And while most people are aware of its existence, relatively few people know about Alfred Nobel, the genius who laid the foundation of these annually distributed awards. There is an often-repeated story regarding his creation, an interesting tale which highlights the underlying reason that persuaded him to devote his fortune to charity.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel, an engineer and inventor, was born on October 21st, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden. Right since his initial days, he was intensely curious being with a natural affinity for problem-solving. He was deeply interested in studying chemistry and was fascinated with Nitroglycerine due to its unpredictable and highly explosive nature. Despite the scientific community’s aversion to Nitroglycerine, the young man’s mind was determined to tame the explosive and turn it into a commercially usable blasting agent. In the 1860s, the chemist experimented with controlled explosions looking for a stable combination. However, in 1864, just when he had a feeling that he was on the cusp of an invention that would change the world, a tragedy struck his company. A vat of nitroglycerin overheated and resulted in an explosion killing five people, including his younger brother, Emil. Alfred himself suffered minor injuries in the disaster. Rather than being put off working with nitroglycerin, Alfred threw himself into trying to find a safe way to detonate the chemical. To give up now would be, in his view, to allow his brother to have died in vain. He continued his work and produced ‘Dynamite’, a safer to handle explosive. He was soon granted patents for his invention in Europe and the US. Dynamite, the first safely manageable explosive became Nobel’s big business. It turned out to be an immediate success, with engineering companies from all over the world clamouring to get their hands on it. Afterall, controlled explosions found numerous uses, including mining, canal cutting, tunnel blasting, and more. Business boomed and numerous factories and plants were set up across the USA and Europe. Soon money started rolling in and virtually overnight, Alfred amassed fortune beyond anyone’s extreme imagination. He kept refining dynamite continually and later created even stronger and safer explosives. Nobel spent most of his time tinkering with chemicals and held 355 patents in explosives and synthetic materials.

Apart from mechanical workshops, he now set up armament factories producing cannon shells and other fear-inspiring weapons of war. 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. He often quoted, “As soon as nations will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide in golden peace.” Alfred considered himself to be a pacifist and strongly believed that his weapons would create deterrence, ultimately proving to be a boon to mankind. This, however, was a gross miscalculation. Wars continued, and nations didn’t recoil. His inventions failed to change the course of the world. His faith in mankind was sadly misplaced.

One particular incident, however, left him with a tortured conscience thereby changing his life forever. As the tale goes, in 1888, Ludwig, one of Alfred’s brothers, died of an intracerebral haemorrhage while visiting Cannes. A French newspaper erroneously confused the deceased’s identity with that of Alfred and published a scathing obituary entitled, “The Merchant of Death is dead.” It condemned him for his inventions, criticizing him as the wealthiest vagabond in Europe who had become rich by finding ways to mutilate and kill innocents. Virtually every newspaper seemed to find glory in his supposed demise. The error was later corrected, but life had granted him a rare opportunity of reading his obituary. What he read in the newspaper horrified him and left an indelible mark on his conscience. The devastation led to a re-evaluation and he realized that the end-result of his life’s work was to be worldwide condemnation. Fame and fortune now felt like a burden. He began questioning himself, “Is this how posterity is going to remember me?” “Is this the legacy that I’ll leave behind?”

He became concerned about his posthumous reputation and decided to establish a positive legacy. In 1893, Alfred along with his assistant worked diligently on his will over the next two years. In the four-page document that he prepared, he selflessly bequeathed over 94% of his fortune to set up the Nobel Foundation. By the time he wrote his will, Nobel was highly affluent and owned over 100 factories that made explosives and munitions. But this was not the way he wanted to be remembered. Now was the time for a much-needed change. His only intention was to work for humanity; to reward all those who have selflessly worked for society and have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The Nobel Foundation laid down five categories in which prizes were to be awarded- Chemistry, Literature, Medicine, Physics, and Peace. These were to be presented without any distinction based on nationality or ethnicity. Then, on November 27th, 1895, Alfred signed the testament unlike any other and officially donated 35 million Swedish kronor (almost his entire possession) to the Foundation which presently amounts to nearly 265 million dollars.

His last testament indicated a sense of apology with a strengthened resolution to work for the Peace movement. This is how an erroneous obituary, a mistaken identity altered the destiny of Swedish Inventor and Industrialist, Alfred Nobel, and made his legacy synonymous with peace. Sometimes even a small incidence can bring a profound change in a person’s life.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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