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The Founding Father
Alfred Nobel's life is a spectacular example of the new type that emerged in the nineteenth century, the capitalist whose energy, ambition, and ingenuity accepted no limits. Nobel invented a motto for himself: "My home is my work and my work is everywhere." He had no real homeland during his life. This famous Swede left Sweden at age nine and, for the rest of his life, returned only for very brief stays. Nor did he bother to maintain citizenship there. His brothers, too, were rootless, ever ready to migrate as they followed opportunities for profit. Alfred made his millions in the worldwide explosives industry. His father made his fortune, and lost it, manufacturing munitions for the Russian government. Alfred's two older brothers pioneered in the modern oil industry. Called the Russian Rockefellers, they opened up Russia's immense Baku oil fields, built a global enterprise, and became wealthier than Alfred.
What needs saying first about Alfred Nobel is that he was a singularly complicated man. He spoke Swedish, German, English, French, Russian, and Italian fluently, wrote plays and poems in English, and read far more widely in several languages than most informed people, to say nothing of millionaire inventors. In its time, his dynamite was the most destructive but also constructive weapon ever invented — indeed, one of the great inventions of the century. He gave a fortune to set up a peace prize. But the same man who created that award to alleviate human suffering had a mordant streak. He liked telling friends about his planto set up a lavish mansion in Paris where prospective suicides could die amid luxury, rather than drown in the cold, filthy Seine. "A first-class orchestra" would play only "the most beautiful music."
Inventor Becomes Millionaire
Alfred Nobel was born in 1833 in Stockholm, the third of four sons. The family traced itself back to peasants from a small town named Nobbelov, whence the name. But a seventeenth-century ancestor married into the family of an Uppsala University professor named Rudbeck, one of Sweden's famous early scientists, a researcher into the circulatory system. If the Nobels thereafter were poor, they remained educated. Alfred's grandfather was an army surgeon. His father, Immanuel (born 1800), went to a technical school and became an inventor just as Sweden began to industrialize. By his middle twenties, Immanuel Nobel had patented a planing machine, a press with ten rollers, and a rotary machine. But nothing worked out. The year Alfred was born, a fire put the father into bankruptcy. He experimented with India rubber for surgical uses, and invented a barge; it sank. He invented a floating backpack for soldiers; the army was not interested.
Since 1800 there had been many schemes to cut a canal across the Isthmus of Suez. Another surfaced in the 1830s, and this one indirectly gave birth to the invention of dynamite and Alfred Nobel's fortune. Gunpowder was then the only means of blasting out the millions of tons of earth that had to be removed. But it was highly ineffective. This set Immanuel — who, like his sons, always thought big — to thinking about explosives. He taught himself a little chemistry and built a workshop, and in 1837 succeeded in making some chemicals explode. But they also blew up the workshop and alarmed the neighbors, and the authorities forbade further work. Heavily in debt, he left his family in Sweden and went off to Russia to begin again.
This was a common move for a Swede at that time. Through the seventeenth century, Sweden and Russia had been rivals as the two great powers in the north of Europe (the wars continued to the early 1800s, when Russia seized Finland from Sweden). When Peter the Great built the fortress in Saint Petersburg, his prize new city, he faced the cannon toward Sweden. The famous equestrian statue of the Bronze Horseman in Saint Petersburg grinds a snake, symbolizing Sweden, under its hooves. But Russia lagged behind Sweden industrially and technically, and foreign experts were needed. One was John Paul Jones, who served Catherine the Great as Kontradmiral Pavel Ivanovich Jones.
In Finland and then Russia, Immanuel kept up his explosives work, successfully inventing an underwater mine. With Russian military backing, he opened a factory in Saint Petersburg to produce mines, cannon shells, mortars, and machinery to make wheels. This "Michelin of his time," as someone called him, expanded into steam engines, iron piping, steam hammers weighing several tons, even window sashes and central heating systems for houses; his own house had the first in Russia. The factory was called Colonel Ogarev's and Mr. Nobel's Chartered Mechanical Wheel Factory and Pig Iron Foundry. Ogarev had earlier hired the American engineer George Washington Whistler — the painter's father — to build Russia's first important railroad.
In 1842 Immanuel was prosperous enough to bring his family to Saint Petersburg. In Sweden, Alfred had attended school only a year, but was privately tutored. He was quick at languages, soon fluent in French, German, Russian, but especially in English: as an adolescent he fell in love with Shelley's poetry and wrote skillful if imitative poems in English throughout his life. He also studied chemistry, mostly on his own. His two older brothers, Ludwig and Robert, went to work in their father's Russian factory. Alfred, aged seventeen, was sent on a long visit (1850-52) to the United States to work with the famous Swedish engineer Ericsson, already planning armored vessels like the Monitor of Civil War fame — perhaps an idea borrowed from Immanuel Nobel.
Alfred returned to Saint Petersburg, just in time to take part in his family's boom in munitions work. Russia's designs on Turkey were raising war tensions in Britain and France, and the czar wanted to be independent of European war supplies. The Nobel factories thus kept enlarging until they were gigantic by nineteenth-century Russian standards, employing a thousand workers — almost all untrained and also not very reliable: all were searched on leaving the premises. When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, Immanuel's underwater mines helped keep the British fleet away from the naval fortress at Kronstadt, and his shells, mortars, and wheel machinery fed the Russian army.
But the Russians lost the war, and the czar decided that Russia should no longer depend on home-grown industries. Immanuel Nobel abruptly had all his military contracts canceled and went bankrupt again, and in 1859 the family returned to Sweden to start over. Immanuel was almost sixty.
The decline of the father and ascent of the sons began. The older sons took over the business, and soon headed back for Finland and eventually Russia to try for another fortune. They made projectiles, cannon, rifles. Then in 1873 they saw the enormous oil deposits of Baku lying unexploited. They moved in.
Meanwhile Alfred, restless to be on his own, moved to Paris. He had become an inventor himself; his first patent was for a gas meter. That he switched to explosives was mainly due to his father's new obsession. Immanuel had failed at inventing a self-propelled torpedo, and even speculated about training seals to carry explosives. But nitroglycerine had become Immanuel's new passion.
An Italian chemist had created nitroglycerine in 1847, then given it up as too dangerously unstable. No one could find a way to handle it safely. Immanuel nonetheless managed to interest the Swedish military in this powerful explosive. Uncontrolled, however, it was useless. Alfred, the chemist, was asked by his brothers to work on the problem, and thus stumbled into his great career.
Alfred worked from 1859 to 1863 before he found a partial answer: soaking nitroglycerine in a granular powder added considerable force to the explosion. But this didn't much decrease the danger of using it. In 1865, however, Alfred made his first major discovery. He invented the detonator.
An explosives authority has described the detonator as "certainly the greatest discovery ever made in both the principle and practice of explosives. On it the whole modern practice of blasting has been built." Indeed, the atomic and hydrogen bombs use the same detonator principle, which is that a small bit of one explosive can ignite another. A tiny amount of mercury fulminate, acting as the firing cap for nitroglycerine, made that dangerously volatile chemical relatively safe to use. Nobel took out the Swedish patent, quickly followed by others in England, Belgium, France, and Finland.
But the personal cost was high. Alfred's many failures on the way to his discovery had been mocked by his father and older brothers. When triumph did come, the father insulted Alfred by declaring he had had the successful idea first. Even worse, in 1864 the youngest son, Emil, died at twenty-one in a nitroglycerine explosion. Soon after, the father had a severe stroke. He finally recovered enough to keep busy with various schemes. Worried about Swedish emigration to the United States, he tried to invent new manufacturing opportunities to keep Swedish workers at home. To this end, he invented plywood — which, ironically, became a popular industry in the United States. Immanuel died in 1872.
Alfred set up a factory in Hamburg to manufacture his new invention, and it gained worldwide sales. But nitroglycerine remained unpredictable and its users often handled it recklessly, with disastrous results. In 1865 a salesman managed to pulverize a building in New York City, injuring eighteen. The next month, in Bremerhaven, twenty-eight were killed and more than two hundred wounded. Another grisly explosion occured in Sydney, Australia. In 1866 Nobel arrived in New York — with twelve cases of nitroglycerine! — to oversee his New York Blasting Oil Company, only to receive news of another catastrophe in San Francisco, with a dozen or more dead. Other explosions soon left more dead or wounded in California and Liverpool. Nobel transferred control of his U.S. interests to the U.S. Blasting Oil Company, keeping one-quarter of the shares. Europe, with wars threatening, was more promising territory anyway, and governments there were less stringent. In the Prussian-Austrian war of 1866, Nobel made a handsome profit. Soon he was in England, demonstrating the advantages of his nitroglycerine for mining and engineering.
In 1866 came Nobel's greatest invention: dynamite. That year he discovered how liquid nitroglycerine, when absorbed in kieselguhr (a kind of silicified earth formable into a paste), could be shaped into sticks safe to handle. By the middle of the nineteenth century, public works were expanding on an unparalleled scale: mining, harbors, road and bridge building, dam construction, railways, great canals such as the Suez (opened in 1869), and military works. Much of this crucially depended on the new dynamite's power to move tons of earth, tunnel through mountains, dislodge or pulverize huge rocks.
Nobel assiduously patented his dynamite throughout Europe and in America, although nitroglycerine was not protected by patents there. Only eight years after his first patent, he had also built fifteen dynamite factories, crisscrossing Europe and the United States. There were factories in Hamburg and Cologne and Prague, in New York and San Francisco, in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Scotland, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, and Hungary. Russia was hard to crack, since dynamite might help terrorists make bombs to assassinate the czar and other notables. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Nobel supplied dynamite to both sides. The British Dynamite Company was set up in Scotland in 1871, half its capital owned by Nobel, the largest dynamite firm in Europe.
Nobel still had two important and immensely profitable inventions ahead of him. In 1875 he lowered the freezing point of nitroglycerine and thus produced "blasting gelatine," opening a wide variety of new engineering and military uses. In 1887 he patented a smokeless-powder propellant called ballistite, an invention said to have most influenced all weapons design from the 1890s to 1914.
To his final days, Nobel worked to improve and diversify his inventions and holdings. But he also tried his hand at other things: cannon borings more resistant to wear and tear, and an aerial projectile that could be used for war or rescue work. In the 1870s he patented an automatic brake, a boiler that wouldn't explode under pressure, and a method of casting iron. Late in life he sought substitutes for rubber and leather from nitrocellulose, and ways of manufacturing artificial silk.
In 1875 Nobel lived in Paris — or, more accurately, kept a home there between his endless business travels. But troubles arose. His French company, the Société Centrale de Dynamite, had been involved in a Suez Canal scandal, and though Nobel did not manage or own this company, he was famous or notorious enough to become the storm center. A few years later, after an arms sale to Italy aroused angry French press and parliamentary denunciations, Nobel was accused of being a foreign spy — his laboratory was near the government one — and of doing illegal experiments. His laboratory was searched by the police and padlocked. Nobel thereupon migrated in 1890 and set up a home and laboratory in San Remo on the Italian Riviera.
His last years were not quiet. His giant French company failed. Nobel, as a member of the board, could by French law be held responsible to the full extent of his fortune and thus wiped out. He reorganized the company with great energy and came out whole. A legal battle dragged on with two British inventors whom he had trusted but who now claimed they had independently invented Nobel's ballistite under the name of cordite. The British court gave the two Britons only a token victory, but Nobel was embittered. Friends, he complained, are "found only among dogs, whom we feed with the flesh of others, and amongst worms, whom we feed with our own. A grateful belly and a grateful heart are twins." He vented his feelings in a satire called The Bacillus Patent.
Just past sixty, his health began to fail. Rheumatism was the least of it, heart trouble the worst. He was ordered to slow down, but kept on working and visiting his far-flung companies as before. He invested in the Swedish Bofors factory and built a large laboratory there with the latest equipment. He helped finance a dirigible balloon expedition to the North Pole headed by a Swedish explorer. The balloon vanished in the Arctic; remains were discovered in 1929.
As his health got worse, Nobel started writing curious things. One was a drama called Nemesis about the Renaissance nobleman Cenci who forced his daughter into incest. Nobel's poetic hero, Shelley, had of course written on the same theme in The Cenci. Nobel had not written any poetry since the 1870s, and then in his fluent and forceful English; this play was done in Swedish, which by now he wrote in a stilted manner. After Nobel died, the family tried to have all hectographed copies destroyed, but three copies survived.
Then came a massive cerebral hemorrhage which, as so often, reduced its sufferer to his childhood language, Swedish. His French and Italian nurses understood nothing he said. On 10 December 1896 Alfred Nobel died. No member of the family was present; his older brothers had died before him, Robert only a few months earlier, in July 1896, Ludwig in 1888, his mother in 1889. Nor were any friends present. But there is no evidence that Nobel ever had a single close friend.
The Vagabond and Wayward Millionaire
During the early 1870s, when Nobel was in his prime, an English business associate described him this way:
He was of average height, with a slender stooping figure. He wore his beard, whiskers and mustache untrimmed. His eyes which were small and of light gray color were full of vivacity, and his face, especially when engaged in a conversation, betokened great intelligence.
One of his personal assistants gave a rather different look:
Nobel gave the impression of being somewhat nervous. His movements were lively, his gait somewhat mincing, his facial expression very changeable, as was his conversational style, often spiced with odd remarks and strange ideas. At times these remarks seemed almost absurd and appeared deliberately intended to shock old fogies. To his Swedish fellow-countrymen, unaccustomed to his light, French-inspired way of talking, he often seemed a bit bewildering, to say the least.
The inner man was elusive: shy, lonely, never allowing anyone close to him, ironic, moodily changeable, in part a Nordic Shelley, in part a master of vituperation who would wickedly tongue-lash associates in public. A razor-sharp businessman indeed, but also aloof, keeping all his employees at a great distance. In contrast, his richer brother Ludwig's home was right by his Russian factory and he spent off-hours with his engineers, foremen, and draftsmen. Ludwig, this report goes on, was not typical of the Swedish disinterest in human beings — the once-popular reason for "why every second Swede is an engineer." But Alfred, obviously, fit that stereotype in several ways.
Insofar as Nobel had any home, it was in Paris. Victor Hugo, in fact, may have been the one to label him the "millionaire vagabond." He bought a mansion and had it decorated, but typically refused to state any preference for color or style. He added on a private laboratory. The house became the stopping-off headquarters of his complex business interests, the center of a vast correspondence in most European languages.
Nobel never married, and biographers know of his interest in only two women. In 1876 Bertha Kinsky, of an Austrian aristocratic family, adventurously answered one of Nobel's advertisements for a private secretary to work for a "wealthy, highly educated, elderly gentleman" — he was then forty-three. She was thirty-three, spoke several languages, and was highly cultivated. They seem to have found each other immediately attractive and sympathetic. She very soon confided her story to him. She had had many suitors, some too old or too young or too wild or tame or otherwise unsuitable. Once, when he found her in despair and weeping, Nobel was moved enough to present her with the manuscript of a hundred-page "philosophic poem" written in English, which seems to have been an outpouring of his most private feelings. That so secretive a man would let anyone see such a poem is remarkable; that he let Bertha read it so soon after meeting suggests he must have been more than half in love with the lovely, restless, independent-minded Bertha: a mirror of himself in many ways.
But before anything could develop, before she even took up her secretarial duties, Bertha ran off to marry the son of a noble Viennese family. When she wrote Nobel the news, she was Bertha von Suttner. He kept contact with her, and when peace later became her crusade, Bertha no doubt persuaded him to add a peace prize to his will.
The same year, perhaps on the rebound, he met another woman during a trip to Vienna. She differed from Bertha in every way. Sofie Hess was an eighteen-year-old clerk in a florist's shop. She was pretty and vulgar and a little stupid, kind-hearted but bored except when talking about herself or gossiping about others. But he was somehow enchanted and bought her an expensive bracelet. He began seeing her whenever in Vienna, and set her up in an apartment. In one way their liaison was banal: the older rich man keeping a young mistress with whom he shared a bed and little else. Nobel wrote her continually but was too guarded to reveal much of himself to someone like Sofie. He called her "dear child," signed himself Brummbär (growling bear — her nickname for him), was avuncular, promised her presents and trips if she was "a good girl." He moved her into a Paris apartment. And he actually took her to Stockholm to meet his mother, which miraculously went off fairly well. But she was too immature; he shied from marriage or the personal intimacy and confidences she wanted.
Still, it went on for fifteen years, before ending oddly. He bought her a villa in Ischl, and she began declaring that she was Nobel's wife. As surprised acquaintances reported this news, Nobel grew more embarrassed. In 1891 the final break came. Sofie announced she was pregnant, not by Nobel but a Hungarian cavalry officer, who had not however proposed marriage. Nobel generously set her up with a comfortable annuity. The cavalry officer, by army code, was obliged to marry Sofie, but the scandal also forced him to resign his commission. He became a champagne salesman and, immediately after the marriage ceremony, vanished — or almost: he started writing Nobel for money, in vain. Contemporary Viennese gossip provided an alternative story: that the child was Alfred's and the cavalry officer only a decoy.
Nobel seemed most to have loved his inventions and businesses. He was a prodigious, incessant, and single-minded worker who wandered Europe endlessly, watching over the making of his products, expanding and consolidating his interests, fending off competitors. He also preferred to work from the outside rather than within. When inspecting one of his many firms, he always did so unobtrusively; he was said to enter even his own laboratory by the rear door. He chose never to personally own or manage any of the factories that manufactured his inventions. He held the patents and some of the shares, but the factories were all locally owned and managed. This sometimes caused two Nobel firms to compete ruthlessly in the same market, even issuing counterinjunctions against each other.
Nobel stood aside: when the German Nobel company started exporting to Britain, Nobel thought the best strategy was for the British company to strike back by exporting to Germany. Although on the board and a large shareholder of each of his companies, he had no authority to give orders. Yet it was the Nobel name that made the companies rich. This ambiguous role apparently suited Nobel. He was after all wealthy enough to remedy the situation at any time, simply by retaining the majority of shares in any of the companies. He chose not to do so.
This way of being in but never quite of the great companies built from his inventions, of having it always both ways at once by never committing himself wholly, extended to every side of his life. "I wish I could produce a substance of such frightful efficacy for wholesale devastation that wars should thereby become altogether impossible," he said. But then, with equal conviction, he told an assistant, "Well, it is fiendish things we are working on, but they are so interesting as purely technical problems and ... clear of all financial and commercial considerations, that they are doubly fascinating."
Nobel once toyed with buying a Stockholm newspaper, but denied that it was because he wanted influence. He wrote:
If I owned a newspaper, I would oppose my own interests. It is one of my peculiarities never to consider my private interests. My policy as a publisher would be: work against armaments and such medieval remnants.
If armaments must be made, he went on, then each nation should make its own. This was the same man who insisted on the right to sell his weapons to all buyers, and fought legal battles when a client-nation tried to deny him sales to a military rival.
In the same way, though he was perhaps the prototype of the international capitalist of the later nineteenth century, he was in but not quite of this group. It is striking that, like Nobel, so many of these were born in the 1830s: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Hill, Harriman, Gould, Pullman, J. P. Morgan Sr., and Nobel's two older brothers, Ludwig and Robert, those Rockefellers of the North. Depending on one's criteria, these men were either captains of industry or mere predatory capitalists. But there was another contemporary group, variously known as Merchants of Death or armaments titans: Krupp, koda, Vickers, the French Schneiders, the older Morgan, the Rothschilds, Bismarck's banker Bleichröder.
Nobel was a charter member of both groups, self-made millionaires who became colossi of profits from wars and industrialization. He was probably the first to invent the great monopolistic trust and holding company of the modern kind: family-owned firms were still the norm in Britain and France, and the Germans hadn't yet organized into cartels, only "profit-pooling" alliances. Again, Nobel deliberately stood apart from those otherwise like him.
Certainly he could be as sharp and ruthless a competitor as any when necessary. His biographer Halasz noted how Nobel hastened to patent his inventions even before they were perfected. Yet something in Nobel did not always find it necessary to dominate. The simplest evidence, as noted, is that he could easily have become far richer and more powerful by owning the companies exploiting his name. Few of those named above would have hesitated to do so. Nobel, however, had a fatal gift of introspection, of mordant self-observation, which would have crimped the relentless trajectory of a Rockefeller or a Krupp. Nobel once disapprovingly said of an overeager associate, "Nothing is sacred to him except his own interest."
Not that such views kept Nobel himself from selling his explosives to all buyers indiscriminately. But it slowed him, turned him inward in an unusual, tormented way, making him doubt anything but brainpower, especially his own. He sold to both sides in a war, but could never say with Basil Zaharoff, the later notorious munitions king, "I made wars so that I could sell to both sides." Perhaps Nobel at heart really was an idealist, as his Swedish defenders like to insist: a sort of high-minded sheep — or only half-wolf — among the wolves he did business with. Perhaps his dividedness reflected the melancholia he often complained of, and the sardonic tone that sometimes stung others.
Whatever the reason, it is surely difficult to imagine a Rockefeller or Krupp sitting like Nobel in his lonely Paris mansion reading history, classics, and Shelley and Byron. J. P. Morgan collected rare books, not to read but as beautiful artifacts. Between selling and improving his explosives, Nobel frequented "advanced" intellectual salons in Paris, talking of radical politics or the latest work of Zola or Maupassant. Would Morgan or the others take time from their busy schedules to attend a dinner, as Nobel did, in order to meet a poet like Victor Hugo? Or periodically take to writing poetry, drama, and novels?
Nowhere is Nobel's inclination to have it both ways more apparent than in his will. Most of Nobel's biographers feel that he was greatly influenced by his brother Ludwig's death — or, rather, the inaccurate obituaries that followed it. Some of the press mistakenly thought it was Alfred who had died, and he had the strange experience of reading his own obituaries, many of which were hardly flattering. He was scathingly described as a war profiteer who became rich by inventing new ways to kill and maim people. He may have written a will in 1889, but it does not survive. His 1893 will gives part of his estate for scientific discoveries and an award for peace. Literature was not mentioned. In the 1895 and final will, all these came to share equally. He rewrote his earlier wills to vindicate his life: his riches would now go to benefit humankind.
Some questions arise immediately. Especially in light of his shock from the mistaken obituaries upon Ludwig's death, why didn't Nobel set up prizes while he lived? He was of course rich enough to have done so. "Surplus wealth," said Andrew Carnegie in 1889, "is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community," and also: "The man who dies ... rich dies disgraced." Carnegie, at least partly prompted by Nobel's will, established the Carnegie Trusts in 1900.
But Nobel, "the man nobody knew," characteristically also chose to become the philanthropist nobody knew. By arranging to be posthumously generous, he once again avoided any public intrusion into his privacy. His will nowhere directs that his prizes be named after him. Perhaps, as Elisabeth Crawford suggests, entrusting the prizes to Swedish institutions increased the distance between himself and those he helped. He had always detested celebrity. To a Swedish publisher who simply wanted to publish his picture in a book about famous Swedes, Nobel not only refused but tartly added: "I am not aware that I have deserved fame, and I take no pleasure in its clatter." To a requested donation for a proposed memorial to Pasteur: "I am sure Pasteur would like to send all such manifestations to the devil, and that he loathes advertising his name." Nobel apparently valued only two honors given him: election to the Royal Society and to the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which earlier awarded him its Letterstedt Medal for his detonator invention.
There is no question here of hypocrisy or false modesty, rather something in Nobel that, while intent on reaping the world's riches, also distrusted the value of all worldly things. To his nephew's request for biographical information, he replied sardonically:
Alfred Nobel: his miserable half-life should have been terminated at birth by a humane doctor, as he drew his first howling breath.... One and only one wish: not to be buried alive. Greatest sin: that he does not worship Mammon.
The same nephew wanted Nobel to have his portrait painted, and was once more turned down. Nobel claimed he was too old and hadn't enough vanity to want his "hog-bristle beard" immortalized. Besides, what could a portrait show him that he did not already know about himself, nakedly and painfully? "I am afflicted with a proclivity for self-criticism whereby every blemish is revealed in all its unredeemed ugliness." But his famous will is in fact a kind of self-portrait for the world to see, where his inner tensions are turned outward into criteria of what he thought meaningful in life.
The Laureate as "Expert"
Many philanthropists hope to improve social conditions; scientific and literary societies usually honor great individual achievements. Nobel coupled these. His prizes go to individuals, who form an elite to benefit society. He distrusted politics and movements, even the companies that sustained his fortune. He trusted only certain individuals.
The word "expert" perhaps best captures Nobel's aim here. The term came into wide use by mid-nineteenth century, reflecting the new prestige of scientists, engineers, inventors, and Captains of Industry. Indeed, in the 1880s, a rage began for what would later be called technocracy, where industrial managers and technical workers saved society — from itself — by controlling and developing it "rationally." Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward 2000-1887 promoted such ideas; it sold a million copies in ten years and was translated into a dozen languages. Nobel read Bellamy both with sympathy and in a cross-grained way: reverence about "cooperative production" and political "corporationism" did not escape his scepticism about any such schemes.
Nobel's laureates in one way reflect his lifelong fascination with Shelley. Nobel's scientists, writers, and peace workers lack the prophetic grandeur of the Shelleyan prophets, whose true benefactors of humanity are the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world: Plato, Moses, Jesus, Newton, Shakespeare. But the purpose is akin. If great prophets are not possible in bleak modern times, the "expert" will have to do. Nobel, himself the expert inventor of dynamite, probably included himself among these. At least he would honor those after him.
Nobel's "expert" makes the fundamental discoveries and helps create the new morality. Dynamite and ballistite may help abolish war, but that is up to the politicians. (Like the Nobel expert, the atom-bomb scientists built the terrible weapon but let political leaders decide whether to use it.) This possibility seems to have depressed Nobel's hope for progress. In his 1893 will, Nobel inserted the following telling restriction: that his will and the prizes perhaps should be canceled in thirty years, for "if in thirty years it is not possible to reform the present system, we shall unavoidably fall back into barbarism." Partly he meant the unlikelihood of preventing war, partly that of reforming modern democracy. He luckily removed this proviso in his final will.
Nobel's perspective here shows most clearly in his many literary efforts. One is titled In Lightest Africa. The wordplay, of course, is on "darkest Africa": much of Africa was still unexplored by Europeans in the later nineteenth century. Nobel's subject, however, is obviously modern Europe. He means to strike at Europe's pride in its all-conquering Enlightenment, embodied in its proud bourgeois success.
In Lightest Africa is a fable of politics, ancient and modern. One main character is Avenir ("the future"), a very progressive democrat. The other is the `T' of the narrative, who favors the sternest, least democratic regimes of the past. Avenir, scorning the past, dismisses as atrocious the three historical forms of government: absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, and democracy. Government by heredity is absurd; constitutional monarchy is impotent; democracy is run by those who talk best, the orators and lawyers.
When the reactionary "I" urges a return to autocratic powers — ancient Rome was the only happy regime in history — Avenir naturally disagrees. He proposes instead to preserve democracy by giving the democratic president dictatorial powers in war; in peacetime, however, the president's powers will be fixed by prefects or governors. In fact, Avenir's prefects seem to have only one main duty: to elect the wisest, most dispassionate, hence most efficient leader possible.
Nobel is clearly both of the above characters. He sometimes called himself a socialist, but not the sort who yearned for a "mechanical barrack life." Nobel's kind of "socialist" is the independent, detached individual who saves others by resisting the tide of popular democratic tyranny.
In former days governments used to be more narrow-minded and aggressive than their subjects; but nowadays it seems as though the governments were endeavoring to tranquillize the idiotic passions of a public roused by pernicious newspapers.
Nobel could find no course of action worth taking. No wonder he gave his fortune to reward individuals, not institutions. Institutions, as Shelley had said, are shaped in the image of great individuals. And yet, Nobel did after all entrust the awarding of his prizes to Swedish institutions. He thus bequeathed his enigmas to posterity. In that one respect, at least, Nobel's prizes have surely succeeded.
|1.||The Founding Father||25|
|2.||The Nobel Prize Invents Itself||40|
|3.||The Nobel Prize in Literature||55|
|4.||The Nobel Prize and the Sciences||114|
|5.||The Nobel Prize in Physics||125|
|6.||The Nobel Prize in Chemistry||201|
|7.||The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine||237|
|8.||The Peace Prize||290|
|9.||The Economics Memorial Prize||328|
|Chronology of Prizes||363|
|Appendix A||Value of Prizes||397|
|Appendix B||Prizes by Nation||398|
|Appendix C||Women Laureates||403|
|Appendix D||Family Laureates||405|
|Appendix E||Jewish Laureates||407|
Posted February 1, 2002
Unnecessarily repetitive, often disjointed, and overly opinionated. The facts of the book are fascinating but presented poorly. Opinions are freely given but are rarely justified, supported, or expanded upon in any way by the author. Most opinions seem to be repeated at least three times, in case you miss them. More care with the prose could have made this an exceptional work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.