6 Surprising Facts About Alfred Nobel

On the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death, which coincides with the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony today, here's a look at some surprising facts about Nobel's life and legacy.
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On the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death, which coincides with the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony today, here's a look at some surprising facts about Nobel's life and legacy.
Alfred Nobel Photo

Alfred Nobel, circa 1883. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

You may know that after a lifetime of working with explosives, Alfred Nobel wanted the fortune he'd earned to be used to create Nobel Prizes in the fields of chemistry, medicine, physics, literature and peace. However, there's much more to this 19th century scientist's story. Here are a few surprising facts about Nobel's life (and death):

A Benevolent Misanthrope

For a man who would establish prizes that celebrate the best in human accomplishment, at times Alfred Nobel had very little enthusiasm for people.

Nobel, who suffered from chronic bad health, lived a lonely life; he preferred not to entertain and once wrote that "numerous friends are to be found only among dogs." In addition, the people he met in his career often frustrated him, as competitors tried to appropriate his work on multiple occasions.

Yet Nobel didn't completely give up on humanity, as his prizes indicate. He once wrote: "I am a misanthrope, but exceedingly benevolent."

Nitroglycerin Man

Nobel's reputation and fortune were built on his work with nitroglycerin. He invented an igniter that made it possible to control the unstable compound's explosions, then figured out how to combine nitroglycerin with silicon-containing earth in order to create the more stable dynamite. Later in his career, Nobel also used nitroglycerin to make blasting gelatin and ballistite (smokeless powder).

In Nobel's lifetime, nitroglycerin was also found to have medicinal uses. And when Nobel experienced heart problems himself, doctors directed him to take the compound. Nobel recognized the absurdity of the situation, noting, "[I]t seems an irony of fate that they should be prescribing nitroglycerin internally for me!"

Nobel the Playwright

Nobel had a lifelong appreciation for literature. He often wrote poetry, and also drafted a few novels. And shortly before his death, he completed a play, Nemesis, that was based on the story of a 16th century noblewoman who'd killed her abusive father. Nobel wrote that he thought his work was "rather good," and 100 copies of the play were made for distribution. 

After Nobel died in 1896, family members tried to destroy those copies because they felt the play could undermine his reputation. Despite these efforts, three copies survived, and in 2005 Nemesis premiered at a theater in Stockholm.

However, though Nobel was a man of many talents, apparently his skills did not include writing drama — so don't feel bad if you missed the show. A Guardian article about the premiere stated: "According to the show's director, Rikard Turpin, Nemesis is a lurid parade of torture, rape and incest that features a drug-induced vision of the Virgin Mary, a conversation with Satan and ends in a 40-minute torture scene."

Nobel and Peace

Throughout his life, Nobel didn't see his work with explosives as something he had to atone for. Most of his nitroglycerin products were put to use in fields like mining and communications (though ballistite was used in firearms). Of course there were military applications for all his explosives, but Nobel felt that "there is nothing in our world that cannot be misused."

In addition, Nobel believed that increases in destructive power might lead to peace. In 1890, he wrote, "On the day when two armies will be able to annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations will recoil from war in horror and disband their forces." And Nobel, who was friends with peace activist Bertha von Suttner, told her, "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your [peace] congresses."

However, Nobel's views did evolve to the point that he chose to establish the Nobel Peace Prize in order to honor those who "have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace conferences" — a decision that many attribute at least in part to his ongoing discussions with von Suttner. In 1905, she won the Peace Prize herself.

Feared Being Buried Alive

In the 19th century, it wasn't uncommon for people to worry about being live burial (Edgar Allan Poe's "The Premature Burial" was published in 1844). In fact, Nobel's father was afraid of such a fate — at one point, he wanted to build a coffin that allowed its occupant to call for help, just in case.

It turns out that Nobel shared his father's fears of being entombed alive, and placed instructions in his will to prevent this: "It is my express will and injunction that my veins shall be opened after my death." Only after "competent doctors [had] noted definite signs of death" did Nobel want his body cremated.

Alfred Nobel Photo

Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Peace Prize in order to honor those who "have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace conferences." (Photo:Gösta Florman (1831–1900) / The Royal Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Confusing Will

Given the importance of Nobel Prizes today, it's hard to imagine a world without them. Yet issues with Nobel's last testament mean that's almost what happened.

Nobel didn't like lawyers — he felt they made a living "by inducing people to believe that a straight line is crooked" — and he therefore wrote his will without any legal counsel. This helps explain why Nobel never checked to make sure that the groups he selected would be willing to do the work needed to award Nobel Prizes.

In addition, Nobel wanted the bulk of his fortune to establish a fund for these prizes, yet he didn't provide specifics about how that fund would be administered. Yet more issues arose because some family members were not happy to lose out on what would've been a large inheritance. 

Obviously these problems were eventually resolved. However, it took time, which is why the first prizes were not awarded until 1901, five years after Nobel's death.