Nobel Prize – An arms trader’s legacy

The Nobel Prizes are awarded annually to recognise excellence and significant contributions. It has become the most glamorous and recognised laurel in many fields that can definitely do with more limelight. No wonder then that for economists, chemists, physicists and physiologists world-wide, the Nobel prize announcements bring a level of suspense and excitement akin to the Oscars or Grammys. The Nobel prize that was first awarded in 1901, was actually instated from blood money, the money made on the lives of many thousands.

The Nobels and Explosives

Immanuel Nobel was a Swedish engineer and inventor who moved to Russia in search of a greener pasture. He and his wife Caroline had six kids, four of whom survived into adulthood – Robert, Ludvig, Alfred and Emil.

One of Immanuel’s notable inventions was a submersible sea mine that could be hidden under the surface of water and would explode when a ship passed over it. It was a hit with the Russians and Immanuel amassed a large fortune inventing and then selling these mines and other arms to the Tsars of Russia. These mines helped protect Saint Petersburg from British naval ships during the Crimean war. But, he almost went bankrupt at the end of the war when the Russian army cancelled its orders. Leaving Robert and Ludvig, his two elder sons in Russia to manage the creditors, Immanuel along with the rest of his family moved back to Sweden. Robert and Ludvig managed to pay off the creditors. They stayed on in Russia and later built an empire in the oil industry becoming among the richest men in the world at that time.

The Nobel Family

Back in Sweden, Immanuel, Alfred and Emil continued their work on explosives. Around this time, a liquid, nitroglycerin, was invented that was much stronger than gunpowder and was popularly known as ‘blasting oil’. This was a very unstable product and hard to handle resulting in many catastrophes in Europe and the United States while people were working with the material. Emil, Immanuel’s youngest son and many workers lost their lives in one such explosion in the family’s laboratory. Nitroglycerin was banned in many places including Stockholm, Sweden. Unfazed by his brother’s death and laws banning the material, Alfred built a lab on a barge anchored in a lake off Stockholm and continued his work on making nitroglycerin more stable and suitable for commercial use. Eventually, his conviction paid off and he managed to convert nitroglycerin into a paste that could then be shaped into rods that could be inserted into drilling holes. In 1867, Alfred Nobel patented it under the name of ‘Dynamite’. Dynamite was a huge commercial success finding a market in rock blasting, tunnel drilling, bridge building and construction industry. He went on to develop many more explosives and other chemical inventions. Ballistite, a propellant he invented is still widely used as solid fuel to propel rockets and missiles. At the time of his death in 1896, he had 355 patents.

The Making of Europe’s Richest Chronic Bachelor

Alfred Nobel’s inventions combined with his entrepreneurial knack made him a very rich man. He travelled extensively for work and between business and science, he never found time for marriage, earning him a title of ‘Europe’s richest vagabond’. At the age of 43, Alfred advertised in a newspaper “Wealthy, highly educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household”. On the basis of this advertisement and selection thereafter, Bertha Kinsky (later Bertha von Suttner) was appointed as secretary. It is alleged that Alfred had a relationship with the woman. Nevertheless, she later married another man and became a peace activist and strongly opposed the production of arms and ammunition. They kept in touch and remained friends although their methods were vastly different. She advocated the abolition of arms and her autobiography was titled ‘Lay Down Your Arms’. Alfred did not believe in any peace convention and is quoted as saying, “(My)dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.”

Although a great inventor, many despised Alfred’s wealth amassed from the sale of ammunition and explosives. When Alfred’s brother Ludvig died, a french newspaper published an obituary to Alfred titled ‘The merchant of death is dead’. The article spoke of a Dr. Alfred Nobel who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before. Alfred was one of the very few lucky people to have read their own obituaries. He realised how the world will remember him.

The Making of the Nobel Prize

This led him to alter his will and instate a prize to which he gave 94% of his wealth. In his will, he wrote that the Nobel prize is to be given ‘to those who shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind’. Alfred was also interested in poetry since his younger days. He thus established the prize in five fields namely physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature and peace; areas he thought were important for the advancement of mankind.There are many myths about why Alfred Nobel did not instate a prize for mathematics. The Nobel Prize in Economics or technically The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, was not proposed by Alfred but  was instated by Sweden’s central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank in 1968 on the bank’s 300th anniversary.


It is ironic that a name which for two generations was associated with ammunition and destruction is today the highest prize for peace and human achievement. A successful man who seemed to have all he wanted in life, also got what he wanted in death – to be remembered forever and leave behind a good legacy. I am not complaining. It is gold dust to the academia providing some much needed glamour to the superstars among intelligentsia.

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