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In a great twist of irony, an inventor of destructive explosives used to fight wars went on to create the most prominent prize for promoting worldwide peace.

Swedish chemist, engineer and industrialist Alfred Nobel represented an amalgamation of opposites. His establishment of the five prizes that would become his legacy -- the Nobel Prize in Physics, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize -- was seen as enigmatic at the time, and it ignited a storm of controversy that never completely subsided.

A man’s dying wish
During his life, Nobel was most famous for his experimentations with nitroglycerine, a highly explosive and unstable liquid. He and his three brothers worked with their father, engineer and inventor Immanuel Nobel, on inventions for the building industry in Sweden and Russia, as well as the Russian military.

Alfred Nobel was tasked with figuring out how to stabilise nitroglycerine to make it safe enough to handle, wrote author Burton Feldman in The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige. But on 3 September 1864, one of these experiments caused an explosion in his laboratory that killed five people, including his younger brother Emil, according to Kenne Fant’s biography, Alfred Nobel. Even after Emil’s death, the Nobels kept working with explosives, and by 1866 Alfred had cracked the nitroglycerine conundrum. The result was his most famous invention: dynamite.

His many other inventions -- including explosive materials like the smokeless powder Ballistite -- were used for militaristic, mining, construction and other industrial purposes. He became a multimillionaire, with 355 patents and factories and labs in nearly 100 locations spread across 20 countries.

It was in death, however, that Nobel made his indelible mark on the world. He died of a stroke on 10 December 1896 in San Remo, Italy. The day after his memorial service, Nobel’s handwritten will was read, stating that the bulk of his fortune would go to creating “a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes” honouring international achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

All awards would be given out by Swedish institutes except the peace prize, which would be awarded by the Norwegian Parliament. “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not,” Nobel wrote.

Not only did Nobel’s will enrage some family members, it garnered mixed feelings from the Swedish institutes named in the document, Swedish citizens and the Swedish government, wrote Feldman. The academies entrusted with bestowing the prizes, realizing that choosing winners each year would take a considerable amount of time and work, did not initially accept the mission. They angled for more money until the will’s executors – two engineers with zero legal experience – agreed to their terms. Many Swedes found it unpatriotic to allow Norway to choose the peace prize, although some historians now believe this was an effort to help mend Swedish-Norwegian relations (their governments’ union was on the brink of splitting, which eventually transpired in 1905). The Swedish government was not too happy about it either, but wanted to capitalise on the international attention that the other awards would bring its country.

At the time, Feldman wrote, “Sweden exhibited all the symptoms of a small country with large, intimidating neighbours”. It had fewer internationally known writers and intellectuals than countries like Germany, France and Britain, and its scientific institutions were falling behind the rest of Europe. With the introduction of the Nobel Prizes, the global academic community began turning to Sweden year after year. The prizes also brought foreign writers and scientists into the country, benefitting Swedish education and placing the country in an international class of intellectual elites.

The prizes
Though it took five years for the first Nobel Prizes to be awarded, they immediately became the preeminent awards in science, literature and peace – not due to Nobel’s influence or their prestige, but because of the large winnings. Each prize was worth 200,000 kroner, which back then was 30 times the typical salary of a university professor and 200 times the typical salary of a skilled construction worker, explained historian Elisabeth Crawford in The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution. (This year, each prize is worth eight million kroner – down from the 10 million it granted last year.)

Over the decades, the awards have continued to yield their fare share of controversy. For example, arguably deserving candidates such as Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf were never awarded Nobels, but the prize was given to a neurologist who used lobotomy to treat mental illness. Joseph Stalin was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize both in 1945 and in 1948, purportedly for his efforts to end World War II, and Adolf Hitler was nominated in 1939.  

These examples illustrate how much the prizes have changed since they were first awarded in 1901. Despite Nobel’s specification that the Peace Prize should be given for “the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, or the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”, the award today honours achievements in a variety of social areas, sometimes between nations, sometimes within individual nations. For instance, in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore jointly won the prize for efforts to counteract and raise awareness about man-made climate change.

In 1968, a new prize in economics was added to the original five, due to a donation from Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Rksbank.

The Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies take place each year on 10 December in Stockholm (the anniversary of Nobel’s death), and the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place on the same day in Oslo, Norway.

Travellers fascinated by the Nobel Prize’s past and present can visit the Nobel Museum in the heart of Stockholm, which offers several guided tours each day. For a deeper look at Alfred Nobel’s life, there are multiple tour options, including the In the Footsteps of Alfred Nobel Stockholm city tour, which shows visitors Nobel’s Stockholm home; the remnants of the laboratory where his younger brother was tragically killed; and Blue Hall, the concert hall where the award ceremonies are hosted annually. Travellers venturing beyond the Swedish capital should head west to the town of Karlskoga, the site of Nobel’s last home in Sweden. Björkborn Manor and laboratory was where Nobel spent summers near the end of his life, committed to his experiments even when at rest.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistated the year that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. This has been corrected.

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