For nearly a millennium, gunpowder reigned supreme as the world's premium explosive. Stable and safe, it was ideal for munitions. But after the industrial revolution in the 19th century, activities such as mining increasingly necessitated far more explosive power. In 1847 a breakthrough came with the development of nitroglycerin, an extraordinarily strong—and terribly dangerous—compound. Its volatility gave it power but led to deadly accidents. The challenge for inventors was to marry the power of nitroglycerin to the stability of gunpowder. The man who did it was Alfred Nobel. It was an achievement that made him not only rich but also troubled. Nobel's complex mix of genius, business acumen, and conscience led to the creation of the world's most famous awards for positive contributions to humanity.
Alfred's father, Immanuel Nobel, was a Swedish businessman and inventor who set himself up in Russia in the service of the tsars. His factory provided arms for the Russian Army during the Crimean War in the 1850s. But in 1859, a few years after the war ended and the demand for arms fell away, the business went bankrupt. Alfred, who was living with his parents in St. Petersburg and had begun his chemistry studies there, now returned to Stockholm, where he pursued research into explosives, including work with nitroglycerin.
The Nobels experienced nitroglycerin's devastating power in 1864. An explosion at the Nobel factory in Stockholm killed several people, among them Alfred's younger brother, Emil. Far from discouraging Nobel, the tragedy may even have galvanized him in his research and strengthened his resolve to find a safer alternative. Three years later, in 1867, Nobel stumbled on the discovery that would make him a household name. Purely by chance, he observed that the porous sedimentary rock known as diatomaceous earth has the property of absorbing nitroglycerin. On testing the resulting mixture, he found, to his excitement, that it was an effective explosive but far more stable than pure nitroglycerin. Nobel termed the compound "dynamite" from the Greek dynamis, meaning "power."
Alfred Nobel was only 63 when died at a villa in San Remo, Italy, in 1896. When his will was read to his relatives, there was, understandably, a huge interest in who would inherit his fortune. To their astonishment and anger, they were left only a fraction of it. Nobel had bequeathed the lion's share to endow a new foundation that would, every year, award prizes to outstanding figures in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.
The Nobel family's links to the arms trade were undeniable. Shortly before his death, Nobel acquired the Bofors foundry (today a major Swedish defense firm). Nor did Nobel harbor especially progressive views. He opposed women's right to vote and acted in a notably paternalistic manner toward his factory workers. At the same time, he had always made an effort to be a patron of the sciences and a supporter of numerous causes. His posthumous prizes can be understood in the context of the age. Nobel, it seemed, was influenced by thinkers such as his acquaintance Baroness Bertha von Suttner—later, a recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize—whose 1889 pacifist novel Lay Down Your Arms was a bestseller. There is some evidence that Nobel believed that dynamite would be instrumental in bringing about world peace. He once wrote to von Suttner: "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops."
What was it that prompted Alfred Nobel to create the endowment and the prestigious prizes? The answer may lie in a case of mistaken identity. In 1888 his brother Ludvig died. A French journalist mistakenly believed that it was Alfred who had died and wrote the headline: "Le marchand de la mort est mort"—The merchant of death is dead. It has been suggested that Nobel was deeply affected by this incident, and it caused him to reflect on his legacy.
In 1901, after five years of planning, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded. Since then, the impact of the awards has been colossal. Every fall, the decisions are eagerly awaited and intensely analyzed. The Nobel Peace Prize has often courted particular controversy. Among the nominees for the prize in 1939, for example, was Adolf Hitler—in the end, because of the outbreak of the Second World War, no prize was awarded that year. Other winners—such as Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela—were largely hailed. They, and recipients of the other Nobel Prizes, conformed to the lofty intention that the prizes be awarded to: "Those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind."
(The article has been picked from www.nationalgeographic.com and has been edited for use.)