Explosive Background to the Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan performing in 2012. He said he was surprised to be listed alongside Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus
Bob Dylan performing in 2012. He said he was surprised to be listed alongside Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus

by Ray Setterfield

December 10, 1896 — When a newspaper mistakenly published the obituary of Mark Twain, the writer is said to have quipped: “Reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.” But that’s another story (see related article below). When a similar thing happened to Alfred Nobel, creator of the prestigious Prizes, it became for him a life-changing event.

Alfred’s brother, Ludvig, fell ill in France in 1888 and died. A French newspaper mixed up the two men and published Alfred’s obituary. In it he was heavily criticised for his invention of dynamite.

Headlined “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (The merchant of death is dead) the obituary said: "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday."

It was certainly true that Alfred had invented the explosive – and made a considerable fortune out of it. But he was shocked by what he read and certainly did not want to be remembered in that way. He resolved that posterity should embrace his name with a much more worthwhile activity.

So he set aside a large portion of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, which each year would honour outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and the pursuit of peace. Economics was added later.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, Sweden, the fourth of Immanuel and Caroline Nobel's eight children. His father was an engineer and inventor but found it hard to make a living.

That changed when he took a job manufacturing explosives with a firm in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Alfred, aged only four, moved there with the rest of the family.

His father could now afford private tuition for his son who quickly demonstrated intellectual talents of the kind that make some parents proud and others to raise an astonished eyebrow.

In no time Alfred mastered chemistry, which he continued to study for several years. As a teenager, he became fluent in English, French, German and Russian as well as his native language, Swedish.

Eventually the family moved back to Sweden where a tragic accident in 1864 had a profound effect on the then 29-year-old Alfred. Five people were killed in an explosion at the family’s factory, including Alfred’s younger brother, Emil.

Shocked and deeply upset, Alfred resolved to use his knowledge of chemistry to develop a safer explosive. Three years later, he produced a mixture of nitroglycerin and an absorbent substance. Alfred took out patents on the new explosive, which he called “dynamite.”

He continued for the rest of his life to take out money-making patents on his creations and by the time of his death the number had risen to 355. Alfred’s wealth was also considerably enhanced by his 90 armaments factories and investment in oilfields along the Caspian Sea.

Aged 63, he died of a stroke on December 10, 1896, in San Remo, Italy, and left 94 per cent of his total assets – 31,225,000 Swedish kronor (equivalent to about 300 million US dollars today) to fund the Nobel Prizes.

Perhaps one of the most surprising winners in recent times was Bob Dylan who in 2016 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Citing other commitments, he declined to attend the traditional Nobel Prize banquet and ceremony in December that year, where he would have received his Prize along with a cheque for $895,000.

But he did send a thank-you note saying that he was surprised to be placed in the same league of authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus. "Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, 'Are my songs literature?’" he added.

Dylan won the Prize for creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The 75-year-old songwriter accepted it at a small, private ceremony in Stockholm six months later.

Whether or not Alfred Nobel would have been surprised by the Dylan nomination, he would certainly have approved of the 1919 selection of American materials scientist John B. Goodenough. At 97, he is the oldest ever Nobel Prize laureate. And he won it for chemistry.

Published: December 2, 2019

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