Alfred Nobel. Photo: Archive.

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist and engineer, known worldwide for being the creator of dynamite, but also of one of the most famous prizes in the world. For these two reasons, his life has not been without controversy.

For some he was a man of dark legacy, which he tried to clean up by creating the awards that bear his name; for others he is a philanthropist.

The Power of Dynamite

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was a Swedish chemist and engineer born in Stockholm in 1833. He was the grandson of scientist and physician Olaus Rudbeck, one of the first to discover the lymphatic system in 1651.

Coming from a cultured, but middle-class family, he spent part of his youth in St. Petersburg, in the company of his father Immanuel Nobel, who had set up an armaments factory, which went bankrupt in 1859. In that city he obtained a solid scientific training and showed a vocation for chemistry and engineering, knowledge that he poured like his father into the manufacture of explosives.

He returned to Sweden in 1863, where he continued his research into explosives. But a misfortune changed the course of his life, in 1864 a nitroglycerin explosion blinded the lives of his younger brother Emil and four others. This family accident and the growing criticism of his father Immanuel Nobel and the factories he managed for similar events aroused Alfred's interest in finding a method by which this unstable explosive could be safely handled.

The Industrial Revolution had the scientific community looking for several years for a substitute for gunpowder, which would be more efficient for opening tunnels, depending on the development of mining and railways, industries that were expanding in the mid-nineteenth century.

By 1866, Nobel found a way to stabilize nitroglycerin by mixing it with an absorbent material. The resulting mixture only exploded when electrical or chemical detonators were used. He found that the power of the explosive could be regulated according to the percentage of nitroglycerin with which it was mixed, and a detonator could be added from a distance. That same year he carried out the first experiment in a mine in England and the following year he patented it under the name Dynamite, taken from the Greek word dynamis, meaning "power".

Dynamite, much more powerful than gunpowder, was immediately employed by the railroad, construction, and mining industries. It had a special relationship with the gold rush that exploded in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. In its beginnings, it had dissimilar uses, even archaeologists used it to eliminate what bothered them in the excavation processes, a practice totally discouraged due to the amount of information that is lost in the process. However, incredibly, it led to the discovery of important archaeological sites such as the legendary city of Troy in 1873.

Its invention was of enormous importance for the scientific and industrial advancement of mankind, but like all technology, it has also been used for non-beneficial purposes. The war industry has been one of its greatest beneficiaries, causing countless deaths on the battlefield since the second half of the 19th century.

Alfred Nobel in a dynamite factory. Photo: Archive

The invention of dynamite allowed Nobel to amass a large fortune, part of which came from the war industry, to which the family had historical ties. The truth is that the Swedish inventor's factories produced ammunition for the war for years.

A Philanthropic Testament

In 1888 another unexpected event surprised Alfred Nobel and forced him to take a different course in his life. When he wakes up one morning he reads his own obituary in the press, several headlines with very negative references to the Swedish scientist. The French newspaper Le Figaro reported: "A man who will be difficult to remember as a benefactor of humanity died yesterday in Cannes. This is Mr. Nobel, the inventor of dynamite." Another media outlet posted: "The merchant of death has died."

It was a mix-up, it was his brother Ludwig who had died. The press retracted it, but this mistake and especially the harsh epitaphs dedicated to it marked him deeply. He considered that he had contributed with his inventions to the evolution of mankind, but perhaps until then he had not been aware of how much he would be judged.

He had no children and considered modifying his will to bequeath his immense fortune to the good of humanity. November 27, 1895 was a transcendent date in the history of Sweden, Norway and the world, on that day Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament at the then Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, in which he instituted the prizes that would bear his name.

Facsimile of Alfred Nobel's Will

In the manuscript, almost four pages long, he included employees of his laboratory, servants and gardeners who were collaborators with him, to whom he bequeathed an amount of money in the currency of the country in which they resided, while reducing the family inheritance to a minimum.

Undoubtedly, the most important part of his will was that he bequeathed most of his fortune, valued at that time at about nine million dollars, to create a foundation that would award annual prizes among those who during the preceding year had done the greatest benefit to humanity in the fields of physics. chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature and world peace. He made it very clear that it was his will that the nationality of the candidates should not be taken into account.

In 1968 the Bank of Sweden proposed to include under the Nobel seal a sixth prize, that of Economics, which has been awarded annually since 1969.

A path of stones

Alfred died the following year, on December 10, 1896. The reading of the will aroused enormous public controversy. On the one hand, his family tried to challenge the document and on the other, King Oscar II tried to challenge the international nature of the awards. Another problem was that the institutions to which he delegated the awarding of the prizes did not seem very enthusiastic about getting involved in the unforeseen task.

To this must be added legal inaccuracies and great procedural complications to liquidate the properties, patents and shares left by the testator and that were about to invalidate his last will. The controversy also spilled over to ordinary people, many of whom wondered why reward those disciplines and not others.

The peace prize was the one that caused the most surprise, many questioned whether it was instituted by the same man who had made his fortune precisely in the war. Some researchers deduce that this is due to his friendship with the pacifist Bertha von Suttner, the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

After many complications and thanks to the efforts of Ragnar Sohlman, Alfred's assistant and executor, the Nobel Foundation was created in June 1900, a private institution in charge of managing the finances and the annual delivery of the prizes, which are awarded on December 10, the date on which the death of its creator is commemorated.

The first edition was held in 1901 and since then it has not been without controversy, such as Jean-Paul Sartre's refusal to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 or the attribution of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama in 2009. Nonetheless, it is one of the most important and prestigious awards in the world and a national pride in Sweden.

To date, among those born in our country there is no winner of the Nobel Prize in any of its six categories. However, Cubans have not been ignored by one of the world's most prestigious awards. That will be a topic for another paper.

See also:

Columbus in Chains