The Newspaper Error That Sparked the Nobel Prize
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes a journalistic blunder can prompt one hell of a correction.
By Sean Braswell
“The merchant of death is dead,” blasted a French newspaper in April 1888, bidding good riddance to Swedish inventor and arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel, who “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Pretty harsh words for an obituary, especially when its subject was still very much alive. But even if the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated, the inventor of dynamite was not about to let the details of his legacy be similarly blown out of proportion, and so Nobel set out to ensure that his name would forever be tied to humankind’s highest achievements, and not its destructive potential.
“Nobel was a torrent of ideas, a perpetual inventor,” writes Jay Nordlinger in Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was no accident. His father was an engineer and inventor who specialized in blowing things up, and whose undersea naval mines had been used by the Russians to keep the vaunted British navy from besieging St. Petersburg during the Crimean War of the 1850s. Born in 1833 in Stockholm, young Alfred never earned a degree or attended college, but in addition to absorbing his father’s explosive knowledge, he traveled widely, learned several languages and trained under a world-renowned chemist in Paris. At the age of 24 he obtained his first patent, the first of more than 350 he would earn in his lifetime.
Nobel’s biggest breakthroughs came when he successfully harnessed the destructive power of nitroglycerin, including in dynamite, his most famous invention, which facilitated canals, tunnels and other infrastructure projects. Nobel was also, says Nordlinger, a “genius businessman” and entrepreneur, who not only invented the products he sold but also directed their manufacturing and marketing. And he was a prolific writer and lifelong bachelor. “My only wish is to devote myself to my profession, to science,” he wrote in 1884. “I look upon all women — young and old — as disturbing invaders who steal my time.”
But the Swede’s single-minded devotion to his work paid off. He would eventually oversee more than 90 labs and factories operating in more than 20 countries around the world, and he spent most of his time traveling between them, prompting French writer Victor Hugo to label him “Europe’s wealthiest vagabond.” Nobel’s employees adored their vagabond chief, though, and his factories offered free medicine and medical care. In addition to his generosity, Nobel was known for his insatiability, once observing, “I have two advantages over competitors: Both moneymaking and praise leave me utterly unmoved.”
The mistake afforded Nobel the rare opportunity to read his own obituary.
What moved him profoundly, however, was being pronounced dead and a merchant of death. The press had confused Alfred’s passing with that of his older brother Ludvig, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1888. It was a regrettable mistake that nonetheless afforded Nobel the rare opportunity to read his own obituary. “It pained him so much he never forgot it,” says Kenne Fant in Alfred Nobel: A Biography, and the insatiable inventor “became so obsessed with his posthumous reputation” that he would not rest until he had crafted “a cause upon which no future obituary writer would be able to cast aspersions.”
Nobel, it should be noted, was in no way ashamed of his annihilative inventions, once remarking that “there is nothing in the world which cannot be misunderstood or abused.” He also happened to despise war, but knew that his creations would forever link him to what he called “the horror of horrors.” And so, without any children or immediate family upon whom to bestow his enormous fortune, Nobel thought a great deal about what to do with it, particularly in the years after his misreported demise.
Finally, on Nov. 27, 1895, the inspired inventor sat down at a desk in the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris and, in handwritten Swedish with no help from a lawyer, penned a four-page document that would become one of history’s most notable last will and testaments. In it, he left 31 million Swedish kroner (equivalent to about $250 million today), the bulk of his estate, to be invested and the interest from which given “in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Four random gentlemen at the club were asked to witness the document, which now resides in a vault at the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, and the rest is history.
When he died, for real, the following year, Nobel’s will shocked his disappointed relatives, as well as the Swedish royal family, upset that he would establish a valuable prize whose competition was open to everyone, not just Swedes. But the prolific inventor, resolute and innovative to the end, had gone out with a bang, and true to his wishes, the name Alfred Nobel, no longer linked to death and destruction, would forever be associated with progress, peace and the very best in human achievements.