How the Inventor of Dynamite, Alfred Nobel, Read an Obituary That Called Him “The Merchant of Death” and Made Amends by Creating the Nobel Prize

No one can ever ful­ly pre­dict the con­se­quences of their actions. Still, some warn­ing bells should be hard to ignore. Take Alfred Nobel, for instance, the founder of the Nobel Prize. For most of his life, he had a dif­fer­ent reputation—as the inven­tor of dyna­mite, one of the most destruc­tive tech­nolo­gies of the age. Though he main­tained his motives were pure, Nobel had no short­age of signs telling him his cre­ation might do at least as much harm as good. He per­se­vered and lived to regret it, it’s said.

Born in Swe­den in 1833, Nobel became obsessed with explo­sives at a young age after meet­ing the inven­tor of nitro-glyc­erin. He spent some for­ma­tive years try­ing to har­ness its pow­er, even after a botched nitro-glyc­erin exper­i­ment at a fac­to­ry killed his younger broth­er and five oth­er work­ers. Nobel patent­ed dyna­mite in 1867, a “new, trans­portable explo­sive,” notes the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald video above, that “was an instant hit in the min­ing and con­struc­tion indus­tries.” Orig­i­nal­ly called “Nobel’s Blast­ing Pow­der,” the chemist and engi­neer soon choose a new name, from the ancient Greek work for “pow­er.”

It wouldn’t take long before dyna­mite became a con­ve­nient­ly dev­as­tat­ing weapon of war, espe­cial­ly in the Span­ish Amer­i­can War, which began two years after Alfred’s death. But ten years ear­li­er, in 1888, when the bot­tle was already well uncorked, Alfred received a shock when a French news­pa­per misiden­ti­fied him for his broth­er, Lud­wig, who had just died. His erro­neous pre-mortem obit­u­ary appeared with the head­line “The Mer­chant of Death is Dead!” The unspar­ing bio went on to say that Nobel “became rich by find­ing ways to kill more peo­ple faster than ever before.”

This may have not been his inten­tion, so he believed, but when he saw the image reflect­ed back at him, he imme­di­ate­ly sought to atone for his way­ward inven­tion. “Leg­end has it, Nobel was mor­ti­fied… and spent the rest of his life try­ing to estab­lish a pos­i­tive lega­cy.” He sought to con­nect peo­ple around the world, pio­neer­ing an ear­ly ver­sion of Google Earth “with bal­loons and rock­ets instead of satel­lites.” And when he died in 1896, he left half of his wealth, “over half a bil­lion dol­lars today, to estab­lish the Nobel Prizes.”

It is a fas­ci­nat­ing case, if we cred­it the mis­tak­en obit­u­ary for turn­ing Nobel’s life around. Adam Grant—whom Preet Bharara intro­duces on his pod­cast Stay Tuned as “an orga­ni­za­tion­al psy­chol­o­gist and star pro­fes­sor at the Whar­ton School”—mentions Nobel as a “pret­ty rad­i­cal exam­ple of peo­ple chang­ing in pret­ty rad­i­cal ways.” There are sev­er­al prob­lems with this inter­pre­ta­tion. Nobel may have seen the light, but he did not rad­i­cal­ly change as a per­son. He was already an ide­al­is­tic inven­tor, as a Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty biog­ra­phy has it, a sup­port­er of “the peace move­ment” and a “tru­ly inter­na­tion­al fig­ure.”

Called by Vic­tor Hugo the “wealth­i­est vagabond in Europe,” Nobel wrote nov­els, poet­ry, dra­ma, and let­ters in five lan­guages. He had a broad human­ist out­look but for some rea­son could or would not see the worst uses of his prod­uct, even as his com­pa­ny sold weapons—to Italy for exam­ple, an act for which his adopt­ed nation of France deemed him a trai­tor in 1891.

Nobel’s first Swedish patent was for “ways to pre­pare gun­pow­der” and his father, also an inven­tor, man­aged the fam­i­ly fac­to­ry before him and made arms for the Crimean War. Like many a gild­ed age indus­tri­al­ist, Nobel turned away from the suf­fer­ing he caused, endow­ing the arts and sci­ences after death to ease his con­science in life, many think, but not to tru­ly ame­lio­rate the dam­age done.

Nobel’s com­pa­nies have sur­vived him, mak­ing rock­et launch­ers and the like as well as unde­ni­ably use­ful min­ing and con­struc­tion tools. His prizes, what­ev­er his inten­tions, have also done the world much good, not least in cre­at­ing a glob­al plat­form for deserv­ing lumi­nar­ies. (Those who have reject­ed Nobels have vig­or­ous­ly argued oth­er­wise.) Nobel was a sen­si­tive and com­pli­cat­ed indi­vid­ual whose life was filled with grief and loss and who left a last­ing lega­cy as a patron of intel­lec­tu­al cul­ture. He was also a man­u­fac­tur­er of dead­ly weapons of mass destruc­tion. Both of these things were true.

But even if he did not rad­i­cal­ly change—either his char­ac­ter or his busi­ness model—he did shift his per­spec­tive enough to have a tremen­dous impact on his lega­cy, which is the les­son Grant draws from his sto­ry. “Too often,” he tells Bharara, “we’re look­ing at our lives through a micro­scope,” obliv­i­ous to the larg­er scale. “What we actu­al­ly need is a wide-angle lens where we can zoom out and ask, what is my lega­cy? What is the impact of this behav­ior on my rep­u­ta­tion?” Some­times, says Grant, “peo­ple do not like the per­son that’s star­ing them in the mir­ror, and they decide they want to change.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jean-Paul Sartre Rejects the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1964: “It Was Mon­strous!”

Albert Camus Wins the Nobel Prize & Sends a Let­ter of Grat­i­tude to His Ele­men­tary School Teacher (1957)

7 Nobel Speech­es by 7 Great Writ­ers: Hem­ing­way, Faulkn­er, and More

Hear Toni Morrison’s Poet­ic Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech on the Rad­i­cal Pow­er of Lan­guage (1993)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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