December 10, 2016

Nobel Prize

December 10 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel (1896) who both invented dynamite and established the Nobel Peace Prize.

n. each of six (formerly five) prizes awarded annually to individuals who are judged to have contributed most in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, the promotion of peace, and economics
Oxford English Dictionary

It is hardly notorious to have one’s name associated with an internationally recognized award for peace, but it is important to realize that Alfred Nobel bought his legacy of good will to avoid a fate similar to Joseph Ignace Guillotin (see guillotine). Nobel simply did not want to be remembered as the inventor of dynamite.

Premature obituaries occur more often than one might expect. In 1922, a New York newspaper mistakenly announced “Pope Benedict XV Is Dead,” only to feature a later edition headlined “Pope Has Remarkable Recovery.” In 2003, CNN.com famously leaked in-progress obituaries and templates for numerous celebrities. Fidel Castro’s was apparently derived from Ronald Reagan’s and described the Cuban leader as “lifeguard, athlete, movie star,” while Dick Cheney’s was based on a template from Queen Elizabeth and described him as “UK’s favorite grandmother.” Finally, though not technically an obituary, when an 1897 journalist was sent to ask Mark Twain about his health (mistaking the author with an ill cousin), the humorist later wrote the oft-misquoted “The report of my death is an exaggeration.”

But the premature obituary with the greatest lasting impact on humanity is surely that of Alfred Nobel. In 1888, several newspapers mistakenly published his death notice following the passing of his brother Ludvig. One French newspaper used the opportunity to condemn Nobel’s invention of dynamite and wrote “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel was apparently so horrified by his potential legacy that he ultimately rewrote his will in 1895 to dedicate approximately $9 million to establish the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833. Trained as a chemist, Nobel became fascinated with explosives and worked to develop a safe way to handle the recently discovered nitroglycerine, which he combined with rock powder and then sawdust to create “Nobel’s Blasting Powder” (i.e., dynamite). He patented his creation in 1867, did the same for blasting gelatin (gelignite) in 1876, and made a fortune. Just as Guillotin believed his invention would humanize capital punishment and Gatling believed his weapon would reduce military casualties (see Gatling gun), Nobel likewise had a na├»ve faith in humanity’s willingness to eliminate human suffering. Though he invented dynamite to be used in construction, he recognized its potential military use and wrote “My factories may end war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps will be able to destroy each other in one second, all civilized nations will recoil away from war in horror and disband their armies.”

It is ironic that Nobel’s legacy of promoting peace should be borne of a newspaper article describing him as a “merchant of death.” Perhaps it is then fitting that at least three of the recipients of his prize (philosopher Bertrand Russell, president Nelson Mandela, and playwright Harold Pinter) share with him a singularly peculiar distinction—all received premature obituaries.