As many may or may not know, Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite, and he also established the Nobel Prize. That award is given every year to recognize those that have made achievements in academics, science, and literature as well as peace. But the man behind the award might not have ever come up with the idea if a mistake hadn’t been made in a French newspaper.
When the Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero, first synthesized nitroglycerine in 1847, he warned against its use as an explosive because he felt it was too volatile, unstable, and dangerous. Up until Sobrero’s discovery, the most powerful explosive was black powder. Alfred Nobel became interested in nitroglycerine and even met Sobrero while studying in Paris. He wanted to find a way to control the power of nitroglycerine while making it safe to handle.
Nobel opened a factory in 1862 that manufactured nitroglycerine while he continued to search for a way to control the explosive. But the danger of nitroglycerine was inherent. In 1864, an explosion destroyed his factory and killed his younger brother Emil, along with several others. Despite the tragic loss, Nobel continued his research, and in 1865, he improved the blasting cap design he had patented in 1863 that would trigger nitroglycerine.
By 1867, Nobel had discovered a way to make nitroglycerin much safer to handle and detonate by mixing it with diatomaceous earth, which in German was called kieselguhr. The new paste-like compound could be formed into sticks and was stable. He called it dynamite which came from the Greek word for power, “dunamis”. The new invention completely changed construction and mining since companies could now blast through rock more easily. Nobel became extremely wealthy because of the invention of dynamite and eventually had 355 patents to his name.
But dynamite began to be used in military incursions, and Nobel’s view on dynamite being used for this purpose is unknown. Even though Nobel had been involved in military weapon production at points in his life, he was largely known as a pacifist. There was one event, however, that has been credited as changing his view on how he would be perceived by the world after his death. In 1888, his brother Ludvig died, and a French newspaper made a mistake and published Alfred Nobel’s obituary instead of his brother’s. Nobel’s life was summed up with the words, “Le marchand de la mort est mort,” which translated into, “the merchant of death is dead.” The obituary even went on to say that Nobel had been a man that had become rich “by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”
Nobel was taken aback by the characterization and wanted to change the way he would be perceived when he was gone. He also had a friendship with Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner who may have influenced his views on peace. He died in 1896 in San Remo, Italy, but a year before he had signed his third and final will. In it, to the surprise of his family and the public, he left over 31 million Swedish kronor (about $250 million US dollars) in a bank in Sweden to establish “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” This was the beginning of the Nobel Prizes.