Contradiction racked Nobel Prize endower


Troubled: The businessman who created dynamite and hundreds of other inventions preferred poetry and philosophy to science.

December 07, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

When the king of Sweden hands out the Nobel Prizes this week in Stockholm, undoubtedly all present will have only nice things to say about the man who made it all possible. But back in 1864, Stockholm's city fathers booted Alfred Nobel right out of town.

And not for nothing. Nobel, then 31 years old, was experimenting with mixtures of gunpowder and nitroglycerin in his workshop on the outskirts of the city when there was a huge explosion. Nobel's 21-year-old brother, Emil, and three other people were killed.

Alarmed, authorities banned nitroglycerin from the city. Nobel moved his laboratory to a pontoon boat floating in Lake Malaren, a few miles away. But he kept tinkering, driven by the fact that nitroglycerin was simultaneously proving invaluable in construction and appallingly dangerous. In New York, San Francisco, Germany, Britain and Australia attempts to move the volatile substance ended in deadly explosions.

In 1866, Nobel discovered that mixing nitroglycerin with the silica-rich earth he had been using as a packing material made it so stable that it could be shaken or heated without fear of an accident. Nobel named the concoction dynamit in Swedish, dynamite in English, from the Greek word for power.

It was just what the world needed for building roads and tunneling through mountains. Nobel's factories sold 11 tons of the stuff in 1867, the year he patented his invention. By 1874, he was selling more than 3,000 tons of dynamite a year and had 15 dynamite factories in a dozen countries.

Over the next 20 years, he developed several other explosives and earned an astonishing 355 patents, most related to explosives but including an artificial rubber and a substitute for silk.

Who was this man whose fortune would endow the most prestigious prizes in the history of human endeavor?

He was a hard-eyed businessman, but one who wrote poetry and plays, and scribbled philosophical observations in his notebooks. He was an industrialist who manufactured fearful weaponry but also endowed a prize to honor "the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies."

He was a global citizen who traveled constantly -- Victor Hugo called him "Europe's richest vagabond" -- and spoke fluent Swedish, Russian, English, French and German. Yet he never married, had no children and suffered loneliness much of his life.

Shaped by stern father

Such contradictions grew from his childhood as a sensitive, literary boy whose father had other plans for him, says Anders Barany, senior curator of the Nobel Museum in Stockholm.

"A very important fact about Alfred Nobel is that he never wanted to become a chemical engineer or an entrepreneur," says Barany, a physicist who is scientific secretary of the Nobel committee for physics. "He wanted to become a writer. But when his father told him to stop dreaming about becoming a writer, he set about becoming a chemical engineer in a very determined way."

Immanuel Nobel, who made and lost a fortune selling underwater mines to the Russian czar, was not an easy man to please. When Alfred made his first discoveries in chemistry, the father squabbled with his son over which of them had invented a certain lucrative explosive.

Nor was Alfred's life after dynamite easy. He was cheated by business partners, lost a major patent fight in England and was driven from France by accusations of industrial espionage. He complained all his life of migraines, stomachaches and rheumatism.

`I am a misanthrope'

The eccentric, literary stamp of Nobel's youth was never lost, though it seems to have evolved into a mordant wit. He once proposed creating a mansion in Paris for would-be suicides, with beautiful music to accompany them at the end so that they wouldn't have to throw themselves into the filthy Seine.

"I am a misanthrope," he wrote of himself once, "and yet utterly benevolent, have more than one screw loose, yet am a super-idealist who digests philosophy more efficiently than food."

Asked to contribute to a family biography, he offered only a sardonic joke: "Alfred Nobel -- pitiful halfling, should have been suffocated by a humane doctor, when he made his wailing entrance into life. Greatest merits: Keeping his nails clean and never being a burden to anyone. Greatest defect: lack of family, happy disposition and good stomach. Greatest and only request: not to be buried alive. Greatest sin: not worshipping Mammon. Important events in his life: none."

Contested will

In contrast with that darkly humorous self-accounting stands Nobel's famous will. He had revised it repeatedly and with great care by the time of his death in 1896 at his Italian villa.

From one of the 19th century's great fortunes, built not only on dynamite but also on his family's oil interests in Baku, Azerbaijan, Nobel directed only modest gifts to relatives and friends.

"I regard large inherited wealth as a misfortune which merely serves to dull men's faculties," he said, according to a witness's recollection.

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