Who Is Alfred Nobel?

Alfred Bernhard Nobel was a Swedish scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. Nobel is also the man after whom the Nobel Prize is named. Nobel, born in 1833 in Stockholm, made a fortune in the explosives business. He patented the explosive nitroglycerin, founded several companies, and patented dynamite and gelignite, among other accomplishments. Shortly after Nobel's death in 1896, the Nobel Prize came into existence. He left much of his large estate built on the proceeds of explosives and munitions to establish the prize, which was first awarded in 1901.

Understanding Alfred Nobel

There are many different theories about why Nobel created the prize. Albert Einstein, a Nobel Prize winner himself, said that “Alfred Nobel invented an explosive more powerful than any then known—an exceedingly effective means of destruction. To atone for this ‘accomplishment’ and to relieve his conscience, he instituted his award for the promotion of peace.” Although this is a commonly held belief, it is not confirmed in any of Nobel's own words.

Nobel did hold the naive belief that once the carnage of targeted explosions was unleashed upon the field, his explosives might bring a swift end to wars and battles. When one of his brothers died in 1888, a French newspaper mistakenly ran the headline, "The merchant of death is dead" in reference to Alfred. This event is believed to have at least played a role in solidifying Nobel's thoughts around using his wealth to create a better legacy.

Key Takeaways

  • Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize using the fortune he had built in the explosives business.
  • Although he was a declared pacifist, many of Nobel's inventions helped make war more devastating.
  • It is believed that the Nobel Prize was an attempt by Nobel to leave a better legacy in the world than having improved military weaponry through his ingenuity.

Alfred Nobel lived in Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and made trips to France, Germany, and the United States. He learned to communicate in several languages while growing up, specifically Swedish, Russian, English, French, and German.

While in France, Nobel made contact with Ascanio Sobrero, who had invented an explosive liquid known as nitroglycerine. This meeting later influenced Nobel's work on controlled detonation explosives, which later led to his invention of dynamite. Alfred Nobel patented well over 300 inventions–several of which involved explosives–in the fields of biology, physiology, and optics. His success led him to establish numerous businesses, among them Nitroglycerin AB in Stockholm, the Alfred Nobel & Co. Factory in Krümmel, and the United States Blasting Oil Company.

Despite his contributions to explosives technology, Alfred Nobel was a strong promoter of world peace. Countess Bertha Kinsky, another strong promoter of peace, influenced Nobel's pacifist tendencies. At one point, the Countess responded to an advertisement that the 43-year-old Nobel published, seeking a woman housekeeper and secretary.

The Nobel Prize

If Nobel's intention was to rebuild his legacy, it was clearly successful because his name is more closely associated with the peace prize than it is with explosives technology. Upon his death, Alfred Nobel provided a $9 million endowment fund to be used as a reward to exceptional work in various fields. The Nobel prize is given in several subjects, reflecting Nobel's diverse interests and abilities. These subjects are physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace, and economic sciences. The prize includes a medal, a diploma, and a cash award.

The Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, is the organization responsible for overseeing and administering the funds. Since 1901, the foundation has given out hundreds of Nobel Prizes. Among the many famous recipients of the prize are the aforementioned Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. From the financial world, there have been many influential economists recognized with a Nobel Prize, including Paul Samuelson, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.