Alfred Nobel was descended from a long line of Swedish engineers. His father Immanuel owned a fairly successful construction business, but after a few barge accidents, he went bankrupt and fled to Russia with his family, including the newborn Alfred. There, Immanuel sold weapons to the Russian army. He suggested to the Russian high command that they use sea mines to keep their northern ports protected. He also invented plywood and manufactured torpedoes and cannon (Yes, cannon. More than one cannon. That’s what Sir Stephen Runciman used in his book about the fall of Constantinople, and if it’s good enough for Sir Stephen Runciman, it’s good enough for the likes of you and me). He eventually became quite wealthy, but when the Crimean War ended, his usefulness did, too, and he filed for bankruptcy and left for Sweden.
Alfred was tutored in six languages, math, the sciences and literature. He was a bit of an introvert and a poet, and his father, not going to put up with this nonsense, sent him around the world to study chemistry. Nobel never settled anywhere, preferring to travel between laboratories in different countries. He founded quite a few companies, some of which are still in business.
Nobel fell in with Ascanio Sobrero, the inventor of nitroglycerin. He started experimenting with the potent chemical, with tragic results. His brother Emil even died because of it. Eventually, after much trial and error and many explosions, he developed dynamite, a stable compound that was easy to shape and safe to transport and very explosive. He worked on a few other varieties of stable explosives, which he (naively) hoped would be used for construction.
One of Alfred’s other brothers, Ludvig, died in 1888. A newspaper in France mistakenly reported Alfred’s death instead, in which the obituarist was very pleased that “the merchant of death was dead.” This was Nobel’s Tony Stark moment, only with less alcoholism and no flying robot suits. He was surprised to learn that people were using his potent and stable explosive to blow up other people instead of rocks (People in the 19th century were very optimistic. It was a more innocent time.) Alfred Nobel did not want to be known as “the guy who invented dynamite and also the machine gun,” so he laid out the plan for the Nobel prizes in his will. The original categories were physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. Nobel’s nephew pushed for the establishment of another prize in economics in the 80s or 90s.
So what does that tell us about this whole business? A wealthy weapons tycoon feels bad about all the weapons he made his money from, so after he died he donated a huge chunk of that money to the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, of which he was an eminent member, to encourage peace, science and culture. This made him feel better about himself. Remember that picture of Pharaoh Bender from the last post? Like I said then, that’s basically this.