By Harold Frost
Biography magazine, 2003
His letters wallow in bathetic laments:
“I am myself a sort of worthless brooding instrument.”
“Almost everyone is unfaithful to me.”
“A nearly total collapse of health.”
“Living like a dog.”
Alfred Nobel couldn’t figure out how to thrive, but he used his fortune to nudge the world toward that path, creating the annual awards that bear his name. The Nobel Prizes suggest that Alfred Nobel was not only not worthless, he was among the great pillars of the modern world.
Alfred Nobel (1833-1896)
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 21, 1833, Alfred Bernhard Nobel was poor for the first decade of his life. His father Immanuel was an inventor, proficient with explosives and other materials (he invented the modern form of plywood), but lacking in business skill. He eventually went bankrupt.
Alfred’s mother, Andriette, kept the family together. Alfred idolized her in the unembarrassed way of many men in those pre-Freudian days. Alfred never found another woman with whom he could connect as intensely as with his mom – with one exception. As a teenager he grew enamored of a shopgirl; his soul, he later wrote, “came alive in felicity and hope.” But the young woman died of tuberculosis.
When Alfred was five years old, his father sought a new start in life, sailing across the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg, Russia, where Tsar Nicholas welcomed technical experts willing to work for the Russian Empire – especially men who were good at military-related skills like blowing things up. Immanuel became a successful weapons manufacturer and soon sent for his family. Young Alfred studied in St. Petersburg for several years, demonstrating an aptitude for languages and developing a love of literature (he dreamed for a time of becoming a writer).
His greatest gift was for chemistry. The 19th century was a golden age for this science. Alfred loved going into the laboratory and conjuring new stuff with beakers, pipettes, tongs, solvents, acids, and alkaloids. His father taught and encouraged him. The two men seem to have been engaged in an odd, unspoken battle, with Oedipal overtones, to see who could cause the bigger explosions..
Alfred eventually won the contest by harnessing an exotic material known as nitroglycerin and inventing dynamite
Discovered in 1847 by an Italian chemist, nitroglycerin was an oily liquid with far more explosive potential than gunpowder. It was prone to blowing up if jostled, and it was difficult to detonate safely. The public was scared of the so-called “explosive oil” and most chemists and businessmen were wary. Alfred set forth in the 1860s to learn the material’s secrets – how to make it into a practical material for industry, how to pack and transport it, how to set it off without losing life or limb. He knew he would get rich if he supplied the world with a safe, powerful, and moderately-priced new explosive. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing – big stuff was being built globally, including railroads, dams, canals, tunnels, and factories. With one master stroke of invention he could banish the bad memories of childhood poverty, and also eclipse the accomplishments of his father – he could, as Tom Wolfe once wrote of inventors, “transform his life overnight, and light up the sky.”
Nobel pursued his study of nitroclycerin at his laboratory near Stockholm, working 16 hours a day, ignoring the dubious remarks of his neighbors, who called him (of course) “the mad scientist.”
Actually, the neighbors had reason for concern. On September 3, 1864, more than 100 pounds of Nobel’s nitroglycerine exploded in a thunderous ball of fire, killing Alfred’s younger brother Emil and four others.
Alfred barely paused. He was back at work the next day and never commented publicly on the accident. He consented, however, to conducting some of his experiments on an offshore barge.
At some unrecorded point between 1863 and ’66 Nobel hit on the idea of mixing nitroglycerin with diatomite (also called kieselguhr), a sandy material. The resulting nitroglycerin pulp could be shaped into sticks that were safe and portable; thus was born dynamite, a name coined by Nobel, inspired to some extent by the Greek word for power, “dunamis.”
Nobel’s other great creation during these years was a reliable detonating device – a blasting cap, also known as a detonating cap. Historian F.D. Miles writes, “The introduction of a detonating cap is without doubt the greatest discovery that has ever been made in the theory and practice of explosives” because it made possible a certain level of safety plus other advances in the field. Taken together, the detonating cap and dynamite mark a turning point in humanity’s capacity to wield power over nature.
Dynamite is still used in large quantities today. It’s not always the first choice of industry for an explosive, but many tons of the material are used globally in mining, construction, seismic exploration, and other work, according to Dyno Nobel Americas Inc., based in Salt Lake City, the sole manufacturer of the material in North America and a descendant of Alfred Nobel’s first U.S. company.
By the 1870s Nobel was one of the richest men in the world. People didn’t call him “the mad scientist” anymore, they called him “the Dynamite King” and they called him “sir.”
He relocated to Paris. He refined his inventions and created a global network of factories. He invested his profits shrewdly, eventually owning a big piece of the oilfields of Russia.
He loved work. Like Thomas Edison, his American peer, he positively gushed with technical creativity – he eventually held 355 patents, making contributions to biology, electrochemistry, engineering, and optics.
He was a man of somewhat less than average height, around 5′-6″, slight and stooped, with a walk that was quick and perky. His wardrobe was generally formal and conservative – dark suit, white shirt, tie, sometimes a vest. For all of his aggressiveness in business, he possessed a gentle air and exquisite Old World manners. He insisted upon generous policies toward his thousands of employees. He liked expensive dinner parties with plenty of Mouton Rothschild claret for his guests, and polite conversation about new books and plays, including the works of one of his favorites, Henrik Ibsen.
Diners at Nobel’s table also discussed the teetering balance of international power and the danger of war in an era when weapons were reaching fantastic new levels of power. Nobel had hoped, fleetingly, that dynamite would be used strictly for peaceful purposes; when this dream did not come about, we can presume that he sighed with a melancholy air, while continuing to sell the stuff to anyone who ponied up the cash.
Nobel actively pursued development of several weapons concepts, devoting many hours to redesigning artillery shells, developing better ways to fire rifles, inventing a smokeless gunpowder. Perhaps he rationalized his labor with a time-honored excuse – improvements in weapons would serve to prevent the horrors of war, n’est-ce pas? This fanciful notion won wide currency in the late 19th century, exemplified by a remark, late in his life, by U.S. Army Gen. Philip H. Sheridan (1831-1888): The improvement in the material of war was so great that “nations could not make war, such would be the destruction of human life.”
In the 1870s, when he was in his 40s, Alfred Nobel described himself as “elderly,” a comment, it seems, on his overwork and chronic health problems, which included headaches, stomach troubles, and rheumatism. It’s conceivable that his physiology was disturbed by the potent chemicals of his laboratory. There is no doubt he suffered; what’s interesting is that he believed he suffered more than others, and rattled on about it. His narcissism stemmed from being spoilt as a child, and, as an adult, being cloistered in beautiful homes and luxurious resorts.
He regularly visited the spas of Europe – Marienbad, Franzenbad, Cauterets – taking the waters, basking in the sun, hoping for a feeling of well-being that never came. He was always cold, no matter how warm the sun, no matter how many logs his servants threw on the fire. “At night,” he wrote, “I felt hoar-frost in my veins.”
He generally slept alone. Love never quite worked out for Alfred Nobel. In 1876 at age 43 he proposed to a woman named Bertha Kinsky, but she turned him down. Later that year, while visiting an Austrian spa, he met a beautiful 20-year-old shopgirl named Sofie Hess. Perhaps, gazing upon her, he was reminded of his long-lost teenage love. Fraulein Hess quickly learned that this kindly little gentleman was fabulously rich, and began an affair with him. But they were together only occasionally. Nobel kept his distance, telling her, “You will never be able to understand me on a deeper level.” She understood him on some level; he paid her bills for almost 20 years.
Loneliness and ill health wrapped icy fingers around Nobel as he moved through his 50s, and he became increasingly sour, especially after the death of his mother in 1889 when he was 56. He was affected not only by bad health and the loss of his beloved moder but by a current of philosophical pessimism fashionable in certain European circles in the latter part of the 19th century, influenced by Schopenhauer. Still, he managed to keep alive a flickering flame of intellectual optimism.
Alfred’s brother Ludvig died of a heart attack in April of 1888. A newspaper in France, mistakenly thinking that Alfred had died, published an obituary calling the dead man a “merchant of death” who had spent his life inventing new ways to “mutilate and kill.”
Nobel was stunned, as if he had glanced into a mirror with bad lighting on a bad hair day – that’s how the world sees me? He thought of himself as an idealist, an artist, a bringer of peace and/or culture; he wanted everyone to share this view.
He decided, after considerable cogitation, to make a grand gesture to ensure his place in the world’s esteem. He would fund prizes to promote human welfare. The Nobel Prizes were a new thing in history – no one had ever set up a program of annual, international, highly lucrative awards for achievement in many fields. The innovative spirit of Alfred Nobel – his life-long capacity to think creatively – here found its fulfillment, suggesting that the habit of thinking in fresh ways in one field can have a spillover effect in another.
His poor health may have been a partial spur; perhaps he saw that his money could promote good health for humanity. Also, the creation of the peace prize was probably influenced by a suggestion from his old friend Bertha Kinsky (Bertha von Suttner), the woman who turned down his marriage proposal, a pacifist, activist, author, and editor.
In the early 1890s, Nobel ordered that, upon his death, the bulk of his estate was to be invested, with the income to be “awarded as prizes to those persons who during the previous year have rendered the greatest services to mankind.” (The term “previous year” is interpreted flexibly today.) He specified the creation of prizes in chemistry, literature, peace, physics, and physiology or medicine. (An economics prize was established in the 1960s.) All awards, he said, are to be given to living persons or active organizations; he wanted to encourage people to continue doing their best work. Most awards were to be granted by Swedish committees; the peace prize was to be handled by a Norwegian group.
Nobel achieved a modicum of happiness in the last couple years of his life, partly because of his satisfaction about his legacy to the world, and also because he’d found a friend and protégé, a Swedish engineer named Ragnar Sohlman, in whom, writes biographer Kenne Fant, Nobel “saw a mirror image of himself in his youth.” After a final burst of productivity, Nobel suffered a stroke in Italy, and died on December 10, 1896, age 63. The funeral in Stockholm was one of the largest ever seen in the city.
The first Nobel Prizes were given out five years after Alfred Nobel’s death, on December 10, 1901: peace prizes to Henry Dunant (Swiss founder of the Red Cross) and Frederic Passy (a French pacifist); a literature award to Sully Prudhomme (a French poet and philosopher); physiology or medicine to Emil von Behring (a German physician, for his work on serum therapy, with particular reference to its use in diptheria treatment); physics, Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen (the German discoverer of X-rays); and chemistry, Jacobus H. van’t Hoff (a Dutchman, for his work on chemical equilibrium, osmotic pressure, and rates of reaction). A Nobel Prize originally carried with it a check for $42,000; the cash value today is north of $1 million (plus a concomitant increase in book sales and speaking fees).
The prizes have generated plenty of controversy over the years.
One problem is that there aren’t enough of them to go around. Deserving people often don’t get one. The scholar Harriet Zuckerman, author of “Scientific Elite” (1977), a study of American Nobel Prize winners, said in an interview, “Given the very small number of prizes, and the number of candidates whose work is of really high quality, it’s a very long shot to win.”
Another problem: science today is often more of a large-group endeavor than in Alfred Nobel’s time, and the prizes, focusing on individuals or very small groups, do not reflect this shift. (There’s a Nobel rule that a maximum of three people can share a prize.)
Given the fact that the economics prize is a recent addition to the list, some people wonder why more new categories can’t be created – for example, in computer science, mathematics, environmental science, global health, and astronomy. American scientist Larry Brilliant notes that the Nobel Foundation made a large concession to modernity with establishment of the economics prize – the Swedish group “violated the (Nobel) will before,” he says, and should be open to doing so again.
But prize officials seem satisfied with the current batch. “There will not be any new prizes,” says Michael Sohlman, chief of the Nobel Foundation. “We have quite enough prizes.” It should be added that the foundation makes an effort, sometimes, to get around the narrowness of the categories.
Perhaps the foundation regrets the creation of the economics prize. Sylvia Nasar wrote in The New Yorker in 1999 that it’s treated by the Swedes as an unwanted stepchild. She quotes a guest at a Nobel ceremony who said, “(The Swedes) make it clear in every way that this is not a real Nobel prize.”
Various prizes over the years have been baffling and/or controversial. A medicine prize was given in 1949 for work on lobotomies. Gandhi never became a Nobel peace laureate, but Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam and Henry Kissinger of the U.S.A. won in 1973 while the Vietnam War was still raging (Le Duc Tho declined to accept; Kissinger was OK with it). The prize given to Rigoberta Menchu Tum in 1992 is a continuing source of controversy.
The literature category has been troublesome from the start. According to Nobel’s will, the prize is to be given to a living writer who renders “the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency.” The Swedish committee, from 1901 until after World War II, decided “idealistic” meant “optimistic,” and denied the award to any writer whom they regarded as “pessimistic.” The scholar Michael Meyer notes the strong possibility of a divergence between how “idealistic” was understood by Alfred Nobel and how the word was interpreted by the Nobel committee. It’s quite likely, says Meyer, writing in The New York Review of Books, that Nobel wanted to celebrate authors who are rebellious and independent. After all, he loved the work of Ibsen, the most rebellious (and pessimistic) of modern playwrights. Meyer lists a few writers who have not won Nobels, some of them presumably because of their “pessimism”: “Tolstoy, Ibsen, Zola, Hardy, Henry James, Rilke, Conrad, Strindberg, Georg Brandes, Joyce, Robert Frost, and Virginia Woolf (to say nothing of those who died prematurely, such as Proust, Chekhov, Kafka, Lawrence, and Lorca).” (Nabokov and Mailer could well be added to such a list.)
The literature prize virtually never goes to a young or middle-aged author, despite Alfred Nobel’s interest in encouraging work from writers in their prime. Journalist Naboth Hedin notes that W.B. Yeats, winner in 1923, had “sixteen years of writing ahead of him when he won the Prize, but he is the rare exception.”
Journalist Ron Charles has a phrase for the Nobel literature committee: “that bastion of proud obscurity.” Critic Ted Gioia asks us to imagine a Nobel Prize for Literature “that doesn’t bend over backward to exclude native born U.S. writers….in which genre writers have a chance….in which (the prize) is exempt from pettiness, politics, and tokenism.” Gioia offers an exuberantly unfettered list of people who might have won in such an alternate universe, including Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Conan Doyle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Dorothy Parker, Wallace Stevens, E.M. Forster, Cole Porter, Jack Kerouac, J.R.R. Tolkien, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Philip K. Dick, Bob Dylan, Ralph Ellison, Isaiah Berlin, Hunter S. Thompson, John Updike, Dr. Seuss, Philip Roth, and J.K. Rowling. (Editor’s Note: Dylan was awarded the literature prize in 2016. A few more names for the sake of discussion: Robert Conquest, Joan Didion, David Halberstam, Richard Hofstadter, Tony Judt, William Manchester, Patrick O’Brian, and Tom Wolfe.)
But for all the omissions and wackiness, most Nobel Prizes have been given for valuable work. The scientific prizes offer an annual occasion for the world to reflect, if only briefly, on the breadth and depth of modern science. The peace prize has advanced the work of talented but obscure humanitarians who might otherwise have been trampled by repressive regimes. (A list of Nobel laureates can be found here.)
Are scholars and writers spurred by the prospect of winning a Nobel? Does the possibility of a prize and its attendant glory keep aspirants chained to their desk or lab table for an extra hour a day? No, claims Harriet Zuckerman: “People who work at that level work extremely hard no matter what. The prospect of winning the Nobel isn’t likely to make them work any harder – they can’t work any harder.” ●