Early in his famous will, the donor stipulated that those who were to be rewarded, whether in science or in literature, “must have rendered the greatest service to mankind during the preceding year.” In that provision, as in others, Alfred Nobel revealed himself as the idealist and the paradox which he was.
The son of a Swedish armament maker, he had lived from his eighth to his eighteenth year in Russia, where his father had supplied submarine mines to the Czarist government for the Crimean War. He had seen his father ruined by the cancellation of orders at the war’s end, and when the elder lost his grip, Alfred at the age of twenty-seven took over on borrowed capital. He had followed his father’s experiments with a new kind of gunpowder; but these he discarded and instead went to work to harness nitroglycerine, then the most dangerous combustible known. One of his first inventions was the Nobel lighter, a method of discharging nitroglycerine with a percussion spark; from the lighter, from dynamite, from a past made from nitroglycerine, and still later from his invention of smokeless powder, came the royalties which were to build his huge fortune. He organized companies all over Europe and the United States; Paris became his favorite residence, and by his mid-thirties he was one of the wealthiest self-made men in the world.
He was also a linguist and, by aspiration, a writer. He knew five languages. His early poems were in English, and so were his plays, which bore a certain dim resemblance to those of George Bernard Shaw; the satirical novels which he started but never finished were in Swedish. French was the tongue which he spoke most nimbly; Russian he had learned as a boy during his many years in St. Petersburg. German—especially after Bismark—was a language needed for his business. Again and again in his magnetic career he came back to his writing.
His years in France had made him anticlerical, just as his youth in Russia had made him contemptuous of Czarist tyranny. He loathed war; wars, he said, were started by the monarchs, the tyrants, in their greed and stupidity. Only one of his books, Nemesis, a Renaissance Drama in Verse, ever appeared in print and that at his own expense; all but three copies of it were burned by his relatives after his death; they didn’t think that it was in keeping with the Nobel Foundation. But in his many beginnings, as in his disappointments, he worked hard enough to realize how hard it is to write well.
To this enormously wealthy bachelor, late in life, came the idea of awarding young men of genius the money to carry on their lifework unhampered by poverty. What better way to distribute his fortune, which now grossed thirty-three million Swedish crowns? Nobel stipulated that all of his holdings were to be liquidated at his death (had the Prizes been drawn from the income of his investments in the form of a trust, they might be more than double what they are today). It was second nature for him to think of awarding Prizes in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, and Literature; the fact that he had suffered from poor health all his life and was always on the outlook for a better cure no doubt prompted the Award in Medicine. And it was the Viennese novelist and pacifist Bertha von Suttner, his friend for many years, who probably inspired him to give the Prize for Peace.