From its introduction in 1901 to today, the Nobel Prize is one of the highest honors—if not the highest—that someone or some organization can receive.
Internationally recognized as a designation of significant prestige, many might be tempted to focus on the awards themselves, whether for sciences, arts, or for peace, and neglect their history.
The Nobel Prize itself is the lasting and complicated legacy of famed industrialist and inventor, Alfred Nobel. A man of both peace and war, his establishing the Nobel Prize upon his death is a landmark moment in world history. We want to examine the origins of the Nobel Prize and how it became the most highly regarded honor in the world.
The Work of Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel was the son of an engineer, chemist, and businessman whose business took him to various parts of Europe.
Having gone bankrupt in their native Sweden, the Nobel family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1842, setting up the beginnings of a family business that would go through ups and downs as war and peace were declared by the powers of Europe.
But Nobel was also deeply interested in the arts, specifically, poetry and drama and his father sent him around Europe to further his education.
It was while he was in Paris that Nobel met Ascanio Sobrero, the Italian chemist who invented nitroglycerine, an incredibly explosive but highly unstable liquid. This chance meeting opened the door on what would become Nobel's life's work.
Having worked with his father back in Russia producing munitions, Nobel was very conscious of the potential for nitroglycerine.
At the time, gunpowder was the most powerful explosive substance known and it was stable enough to transport.
Nitroglycerine, however, was much more powerful, but accidents were frequent and deadly because of the instability while handling the liquid.
Despite the dangers, Nobel knew that if nitroglycerine could achieve the stability of gunpowder, its industrial uses were limitless.
He found that substance in Diatomaceous earth, a form of silica sedimentary rock. When mixed with nitroglycerine, the powdered form of would turn Diatomaceous earth into a waxy paste.
The silica gave the nitroglycerine the stability it needed and didn’t inhibit its explosive quality and Nobel patented the invention in 1867, calling it dynamite, after the Greek word dynamis, meaning power.
By significantly reducing the cost of construction, dynamite allowed the industry to tunnel through mountains, construct canals, and level surfaces to ease the construction of railroads.
Without dynamite, much of the industrial revolution’s most visible legacy wouldn’t have been possible and its rapid, widespread use around the world made him one of the wealthiest men alive.
The Merchant of Death is Dead
According to the legend surrounding the Nobel Prize, Alfred Nobel was given a shock in 1888.
When after the death of his brother Ludvig, a journalist mistook Ludvig for Alfred and wrote an obituary for Alfred Nobel under the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort”—the merchant of death is dead.
Seeing his legacy is such stark terms supposedly gave Nobel the impetus to establish the Nobel Prize, but the truth is probably less dramatic and more complicated.
It's commonplace for the wealthy to want to leave a more polished legacy after their passing, and Nobel likely wasn't much different.
But, Nobel wasn't just an industrialist, but also a scientist, a poet, and a playwright, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he would want to support these fields.
What's more, even though his family's fortune was made making armaments for the Russian army, Nobel did seem genuinely concerned about fostering peace in the world.
Nobel once wrote to his friend, the pacifist Bertha Von Suttner, about his views on bringing peace to a chaotic world.
In the letter, Nobel stated posited that “[p]erhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”
While the First World War would prove exactly the opposite, Nobel wasn't alone in thinking that the prospect utter ruin would naturally lead to global peace, and he certainly wasn't the last.
Nobel’s Will and the Establishing of the Nobel Prize
At the age of 63, Alfred Nobel died in San Remo, Italy in 1896.
Who would inherit such a monumental fortune as Nobel's immediately became a hotly contested issue?
When his extended family was gathered to hear the reading of his will, they were incensed to learn that Nobel had left them very little of his fortune.
Instead, Nobel directed that the vast majority of his wealth would go to endow a foundation that would award annual prizes for the greatest accomplishments in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and the pursuit of Peace.
The executors of his will, Rudolf Lilljequist, and Ragnar Sohlman, were tasked with establishing the foundation that would carry out Nobel’s vision.
That there is a Nobel Prize at all is due to the dedicated efforts of Sohlman and Lilljequist, who traveled the world and secured Nobel’s assets before authorities or Nobel’s relatives could effectively prevent their expatriation.
Though it took five years, they finally succeeded and the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901 and continue to this day.
There's no way to know if it was a guilty conscience or the final vanity project of an obscenely wealthy industrialist but, after over 120 years, that question is academic.
The prizes are real, they are the most prestigious in the world, and they are some of the most sought-after honors mankind has ever known.
Revolutionary work in Science and Medicine have been given just recognition by the Nobel Prize, as have those who furthered the cause of world peace.
Poets, playwrights, and Authors who may never have been known outside their native countries have been introduced to a global audience.
Regardless of his motivations, Alfred Nobel gave us an international cultural touchstone with the Nobel Prize, an institution that—if humanity has the good sense to harness it for peace—can be as revolutionary in its impact on our world as dynamite was in Alfred Nobel’s day.