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
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
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
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.
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.