Nobel’s Puzzling Prizes

October 21: Onthis day in 1833, Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm. Nobel’s great wealth, andthe prizes which he established with them, seem directly related to theconditions of his upbringing. His father had some success as an inventor and abusinessman, but at times his sons were selling matches on the street cornersof Stockholm. Whether marketable (land mines) or madcap (coffins with a deviceso that those mistaken for dead could save themselves), the father’s inventionsinspired in Alfred an interest in explosives and innovation. His 300 patentsincluded a blasting cap for nitroglycerine, as well as dynamite and other suchrefinements, from which he would build a fortune.

From his father Nobel may have also acquired his lifelongfear of being buried alive, and in his will he left instructions to have hisarteries cut after death, just to be sure. To the surprise and dismay of thosenear him, his will also left the bulk of his wealth to establishing his famousFoundation. Nobel was not only unmarried but, as he describes himself, “anomadic condemned by fate to be a broken shipwreck in life,” one excludedby work and temperament from “love, happiness, joy, pulsating life, caringand being cared for, caressing and being caressed.” He regarded friendshipas something found “at the cloudy bottom of fleeing illusions or attachedto the clattering sound of collected coins.”

Why such an unromantic semi-recluse andborderline misanthrope should leave his money to those who “shall haveconferred the greatest benefit on mankind” and, in literature’s case, tomoving mankind in “an ideal direction,” is something of a puzzle.Some think that Nobel was partly motivated by a journalistic error on theoccasion of his brother’s death eight years earlier. Ludvig Nobel was alsosuccessful, but in oil; one newspaper’s obituary confused the two brothers, andreported that not Ludvig but Alfred had died, labeling him the “merchantof death” for his 90 dynamite factories. One theory is that Nobel was sohorrified by this glimpse at his legacy that he did all he could to combat it.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at