Alfred Nobel & His Prizes

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In addressing hope, Alfred Nobel referred to it as nature’s veil for hiding truth’s nakedness2. Such a statement encompasses the struggle associated with Nobels lifework. Alfred Nobels existence spanned many realms of thought and being. He was a scientist, a writer, a philosopher and humanitarian, and ultimately a philanthropist.

It was probably this myriad of influences and inspirations that injected him into the core of friction between science and society, between knowledge and application. This work will elucidate Nobels motivation for creating the Nobel Prize with the assertion that the prize is an instrument used to reconcile the incongruity between science and humanity. Alfred-Bernhard was born to his mother Caroline Andriette Nobel on October 21, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden.

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At birth he was a physically quiet and fragile infant, unlike his two older brothers, who were four and two years old respectively, and were quite energetic. Alfreds mother nourished me to health and cared for him with her bracing maternal touch. In the words of Erik Bergengren, it took all her tender care to keep his flickering life flame burning. She alone believed and succeeded when all others had given up hope.

In the following years Alfred grew, although still not physically dynamic, his mind gained much strength in the form of knowledge and an interested insatiability. Alfred writes of his school terms in the following poem:We find him now a boy. His weakness still makes him a stranger in the little world wherein he moves. When fellow-boys are playing he joins them not, a pensive looker-on; and thus debarred the pleasures of his age his mind keeps brooding over those to come.

It is evident that Alfred felt he was physically incapable of joining with his classmates in their activities. Partly as a consequence of this Alfred gained the highest marks possible in the academic classes he took at school. His upbringing was an integral part of the formation of his inventive mind and logic as well as his persistence and endurance.

The role of Immanuel Nobel, Alfreds father, was also crucial in molding Alfred into the man, inventor, and ingenious mind he became. It was almost as if the will and ability to invent and innovate was passed down through the generations amongst Alfred and his ancestry. His family was descended from none other than Olof Rudbeck, the best-known technical genius of Sweden’s 17th century era as a Great Power in Northern Europe.

Keeping this in mind and the fact that he was born into a family of engineers, namely, his father, we can plainly see a major avenue of influence on Alfred Nobel and his inventive ways of industry. Furthermore, having seen the source of his career choice we can now examine certain events that placed Alfred in the core of invention and industry. A year before Alfreds birth, the house he was soon to grace, lay in ashes, cradled by arms of smoke. This resulted in poverty for the family. Immanuel Nobel found himself at a loss for capital and submerged in debt and deprivation. He took a loan from his brother in-law and began inventing again only to be disheartened again by an explosion in his factory.

Faced with the reality and responsibility of having to provide for a sizeable family Immanuel looked east, to Russia. Sweden now represented the scene of his bankruptcy and business losses, so he decided to leave his native land and search for his pot of gold in Russia. Alfreds father eventually established a position in the Russian iron mills and was able to provide for private tutoring for his sons. Perhaps the only way to explain the breadth and profundity of Alfreds knowledge is to call him largely self-taught.

Alfred was able to write in six different languages and took interest in various subjects of study; treating all of them with the utmost in significance. However, the episode of bankruptcy and paucity had left its blemish on Alfreds disposition and psyche. As he matured he gained a certain reputation for being gloomy, sarcastic, and misanthropic.

In the struggle to give Alfred and his brothers the material necessities Immanuel, their father, also bestowed upon them the full benefit ofmechanical and technical knowledges. There was always an inventive aroma in the air in the house of the Nobels. Such an approach to life and existence instilled in Alfred Nobel a respect for science and a fascination with scientific quests.

In the mid 1800s Alfred began studying foreign languages. His ability to engage in discourse and write in multiple languages intensified his broad world outlook, and afforded him an opportunity to become more cultured and worldly. Alfred lived in Paris for some time studying French and looking to establish a career. Soon after he traveled to America to study Engineering under a Swedish engineer, Ericsson, however Alfred did not stay long enough to gain the title of engineer.

Evlanoff and Fluor in discussing Alfred Nobels experience with engineering make a distinction between Nobels mentality and that of an engineer. Engineering could never have suited Alfred. He was no automaton of science, no robot duplicating technical operations of other men. Even at this time of youth, his scientific interests lay in working out his original ideas and schemes.

Evidently, through his lifetime Alfred was an inventor. He was motivated by novel and original thought and did not wish to be a simple machination of the industrial process. He wanted to discover, learn, and apply, not simply apply. Along his travels and journeys Alfred realized that his primary interest was to be chemistry. He pursued a position in the free laboratory of the noted Professor Pelouze in Paris.

In 1853 the Crimean war had begun. It was this war that first introduced Alfred to the realm of explosives. His father and brothers were manufacturing sea mines for the Russian Tsar, Nicholas I. It is very likely that at this point in his life Alfred felt a yearning to improve upon the primitive 500-year old gunpowder being used at that time. Professor Zinin then introduced him, in 1855, to the problem of nitroglycerine. Many men, French, Swedish, Italian, and Russian cleared the way for Alfred Nobels work with dynamite.

One of these men, Sobrero, is the one who actually discovered the compound nitroglycerine. But, as his biographers Molinari and Quartieri observe, he did not know how to make practical use of his discovery. Sobrero had deemed nitroglycerine too dangerous for uses outside of medicine. However the onset of the Crimean War spurred Alfreds interest in its use as an explosive. Events following the end of the war and death of Nicholas I led to more hardship for the Nobel family. However, Alfreds love for invention and innovation had been instigated.

Following a return to his mother country Alfred immediately commenced on his journey of discovery and invented a detonator in which a primary small scale explosion leads to a larger second explosion. After the legal documentation had been taken care of and Alfred had received the patent for the detonator he and his father began work on the production of nitroglycerine at Heleneborg. At this time Alfreds youngest brother Oscar-Emil also became involved with the work due to the need for cutting labor costs. At this point Alfred and his father were tragically reminded of the peril of nitroglycerine due to the Heleneborg disaster in which Emil was killed as well as some others.4 After this point both Alfred and Immanuel were emotionally traumatized.

Soon after Emils death Alfred focused on the manufacturing methods of nitroglycerine and eventually created conditions in which it was rendered harmless. In speaking of Alfred Nobels response to the death of his brother Evlanoff states: He blamed himself with bitterness He mourned that he had not been able to accomplish this sooner, so Emil need not have died. He could never forget the dreadful day of the Heleneborg disaster to the end of his life.

Following the Heleneborg disaster, Alfred experienced much success and fortune from his invention of dynamite. Immanuel Nobel passed away on September 3, 1872 and Alfred was left without his father. Such losses manifested themselves in Alfreds psyche and disposition. Alfred wrote to Bertha von Suttner: There is nothing more that I love than to feel myself capable of enthusiasm. But this faculty was considerably diminished by my life experiences and my fellow men.

The remainder of Alfreds life consisted of building upon his fortune and pursuing his love, invention, as well as other love interests. One of his most substantial contributions was indeed the Nobel Prize, which he established prior to his death and willed a large sum of money for before he died.

For Alfred Nobel, the idea of giving away his fortune was no passing fancy. He had thought about it for a long time and had even re-written his will on various occasions in order to weigh different wordings against each other. On November 27, 1895, Nobel signed his final will and testament at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris. The Nobel Prize was established through the wishes of Alfred Nobel for categories of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace, and economics (added in 1969).

The prizes are awarded to those individuals who, in the opinion of a panel of judges, have made the most important discoveries, inventions, or improvements in these fields. The extent of practical usage is not necessarily a means of assessing the importance of the advances, however, prospective impact is always considered. Alfreds main purpose behind the creation of the awards was to further promote peace and benefit humanity. If the prizes established by Alfred Nobels contributions are examined from a psychological point of view one may trace the source of the prize in regards to why Alfred Nobel held the subject matter in high esteem. As far as the sciences are concerned it is quite simple to evaluate the source of Alfreds love for scientific research and discovery.

Quite evidently throughout his adolescence and manhood his father whom he loved a great deal and held in high regard stimulated his sense of inquiry and invention. Personally Alfred dedicated his career to studying chemistry in the laboratory; hence there is an award for chemistry. Alfred was also an individual who was quite logical and able to apply his knowledge in a pragmatic sense to further technology and improve many aspects of life; hence the award for physical science or physics.

The award for medicine may have been influence by multiple sources. First of all, the individual who discovered nitroglycerine, Sobrero, was interested in medicine. In addition throughout Alfreds life he had suffered from physical ailments and had been deprived the comfort of good health, vigor, and well-being. These experiences could have very probably manifested themselves through his need to create a Nobel Prize for Medicine.

In addition to an interest in the sciences, Alfred Nobel was an avid writer and skilled poet as well as a distinguished linguist. Such exposure to the humanities most likely influenced Nobel to want to create an award for achievements in writing and/or literature. Finally, the peace prize is said to be the offspring of the relationship between Alfred and Baroness Bertha von Suttner. Alfred hired Bertha as a secretary or sorts and began a relationship with her that would stay in his thoughts for the rest of his life. During their correspondence Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book called Lay Down Arms and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. No doubt this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his final will that was to include a prize for persons or organizations that promoted peace.

Several years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von Suttner.Having discussed the subjects thought worthy by Nobel of awarding a Nobel Prize we may also look at one subject in particular which was neglected, mathematics. There are two primary theories as to why mathematics as a field may have been excluded from the list of those subjects to be rewarded by a Nobel Prize. The first theory, for which there is minimal historical evidence, states that Gosta Mittag-Leffler, a renowned mathematician, and Alfred Nobel both competed for the attention of a woman.

The assertion is thus that Nobel, owing to some residual animosity, left math out of the list of subjects for which individuals were rewarded. A second more credible hypothesis states that at the time there existed already a well-known Scandinavian prize for mathematicians. If Nobel knew about this prize he might have felt more compelled to add a competing prize for mathematicians in his will.

Nobel, an inventor and industrialist, did not create a prize in mathematics simply because he was not particularly interested in mathematics or theoretical science. His will speaks of prizes for those inventions or discoveries of greatest practical benefit to mankind. Furthermore, mathematics is the base field.

It is a gateway to understanding many of the other subjects listed by the Nobel Prize institution. Math is inherently present in Physics, Chemistry, Economics, and Medicine. Hence, Nobel may have deemed the presence of mathematics as unnecessary or understood and implicit. Alfred Nobel’s greatness lay in his ability to combine the penetrating mind of the scientist and inventor with the forward-looking dynamism of the industrialist.

Nobel was very interested in social and peace-related issues and held what were considered radical views in his era. He had a great interest in literature and wrote his own poetry and dramatic works. As we have seen through his lifetime and existence, the Nobel Prizes became an extension and a fulfillment of his lifetime interests, and a tool for penetrating the partition between the sciences and humanity.


  1. Nobel e-Museum. Alfred Nobel-His Life and Work. 30 August 2000.
  2. Schck, H. et al. Nobel. The Man and His Prizes. Stockholm. Solhmans Frlag, 1950.
  3. Evlanoff, Michael and Fluor, Marjorie. Alfred Nobel-The Loneliest Millionaire. Washington D.C. Ward Ritchie Press, 1969.
  4. Sohlman, Ragnar. The Legacy of Alfred Nobel. London. The Bodley Head, 1983.
  5. Frngsmyr, T. Alfred Nobel. Stockholm. Swedish Institute, 1996.
  6. Crawford, Elisabeth. The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution. London. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984.

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Alfred Nobel & His Prizes. (2019, Jan 31). Retrieved from

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