War Profiteer or Advocate for Peace? Happy Birthday, Alfred Nobel!

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rook76 | Shutterstock.com

Edgy Labs is wishing one of the greatest inventors, entrepreneurs and scientists of modern times a Happy Birthday with a tribute to his life and legacy.

The Nobel Prizes illustrate that technology is a tool, and how we use it determines our legacy.

War and Peace (Prizes)

The Prizes are arguably some of the most prestigious awards in the world and are equally famous, but few are familiar with the man that created the prizes and why.

Above all, 19th-century Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel is considered a philanthropist, having left over 90 percent of his personal fortunate to founding the five Nobel Prizes.

The subjects in which he chose to give the prizes clearly illustrate Nobel’s personal interests in literature and science.

Yet, Nobel’s legacy as a philanthropist almost contradicts his live’s work as an explosives manufacturer.

Nobel's final will that established the five Nobel Prizes
Nobel’s final will that established the five Nobel Prizes. Courtesy of Today In History.

By 1895, he had built an industrial empire that encompassed 80 factories worldwide and 355 patents.

The brilliant chemist from humble beginnings amassed a fortune from his intellect.

However, he also stood to leave behind the tarnished legacy of a man that used intellectual discovery to create and sell destruction.

Unbeknownst to his family, he donated the majority of his fortunate in the form of monetary prizes to peace advocates, men and women of letters, and artisans of scientific progress.

Explosive Upbringing

As a child, Alfred and his family immigrated to Russia where they built a successful arms manufacturing business. In the context of 19th-Century European conflicts, business for the Swedish family was literally booming.

The Nobel family factory produced cannons like the one depicted in this relief.
Detail of a monument to the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) in the city of Sebastopol located on the historically disputed Black Sea peninsula. The Nobel family factory produced cannons like the one depicted in this relief. Sergey Kamshylin | Shutterstock.com

The chemist later returned to their native Sweden to continue manufacturing arms, and in 1864, an explosion in the family factory killed five people including Alfred’s brother, Emil.

This tragedy inspired Nobel to use his intellect and expertise to find a way to stabilize nitroglycerin. Alfred successfully transformed the volatile liquid into a more stable solid that could be packed and shipped with significantly less risk of explosion.

“If I have a thousand ideas, and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied.” – Alfred Nobel

The resulting paste was perhaps Alfred’s most famous (and most lucrative) invention: dynamite.

Although dynamite was also used in construction projects and was just one of many Nobel inventions, the innovation only exacerbated his reputation as a war monger.

“The Merchant of Death”

Just a year after perfecting dynamite, Alfred’s other brother, Ludvig, died unexpectedly while visiting France. Under the mistaken impression that it was actually Alfred who had died, one French newspaper printed an obituary for Alfred condemning him “the Merchant of Death“.

Then, being accused of high treason by France for selling one of his inventions to Italy only solidified his reputation as a war-profiteer.

Alfred may have always considered himself as a man that devoted his life to scientific inquiry and had become fabulously wealthy because of it.

But, both his negative reputation abroad and his intimate relationship with pacifist Baroness Bertha von Suttner undoubtedly caused Alfred to rethink how others might view his life’s work developing and dealing arms.

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