Nobel's Puzzling Prizes

October 21: On this day in 1833, Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm. Nobel's great wealth, and the prizes which he established with them, seem directly related to the conditions of his upbringing. His father had some success as an inventor and a businessman, but at times his sons were selling matches on the street corners of Stockholm. Whether marketable (land mines) or madcap (coffins with a device so that those mistaken for dead could save themselves), the father's inventions inspired in Alfred an interest in explosives and innovation. His 300 patents included a blasting cap for nitroglycerine, as well as dynamite and other such refinements, from which he would build a fortune.


From his father Nobel may have also acquired his lifelong fear of being buried alive, and in his will he left instructions to have his arteries cut after death, just to be sure. To the surprise and dismay of those near him, his will also left the bulk of his wealth to establishing his famous Foundation. Nobel was not only unmarried but, as he describes himself, "a nomadic condemned by fate to be a broken shipwreck in life," one excluded by work and temperament from "love, happiness, joy, pulsating life, caring and being cared for, caressing and being caressed." He regarded friendship as something found "at the cloudy bottom of fleeing illusions or attached to the clattering sound of collected coins."


Why such an unromantic semi-recluse and borderline misanthrope should leave his money to those who "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" and, in literature's case, to moving mankind in "an ideal direction," is something of a puzzle. Some think that Nobel was partly motivated by a journalistic error on the occasion of his brother's death eight years earlier. Ludvig Nobel was also successful, but in oil; one newspaper's obituary confused the two brothers, and reported that not Ludvig but Alfred had died, labeling him the "merchant of death" for his 90 dynamite factories. One theory is that Nobel was so horrified 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

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