The Explosive Origins of the Nobel Prizes

Alfred Nobel, creator of the famous Nobel Prizes, was a paradox: An arms dealer in life, Nobel decided in death to use his dynamite fortune to fund a peaceful foundation.

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.

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