Alfred Nobel

by Nick Ramshaw

The great thing about travel is that it really does broaden your mind. I have always believed that and always been encouraged to travel by my family. Last week I spent a few days in Stockholm (before heading over to Copenhagen) and it really is a magical city, well worth checking out. One of the highlights was a visit to the Nobel Museum, which made me realise that even though the Nobel Prize is one of the most famous things in the world, I knew very little about it. So I thought I’d share some of what I learnt…

Alfred Nobel sounds like he was one of those people that was great at whatever they did. He was a cosmopolitan who lived in St Petersburg, Stockholm and Paris between 1833 and 1896. His family descended from Olof Rudbeck, the best known technical genius on 17th century Sweden, an era in which Sweden was a great power in Northern Europe. Nobel was fluent in several languages, wrote poetry and drama, and was interested in social and peace-related issues, considered to be a bit of a radical during his time. His life was dedicated to solving problems by inventing things, the most successful of which was dynamite, which you could say caused as many as it solved! In his will, he wrote that physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine and peace would each year receive a part of the revenues of his fortune. No other prize spans so many subjects and nationalities, or is more revered, and more than 800 Laureates have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Some of the world’s most important ideas, thinking and discoveries can be found among the winners, from Marie Curie to Einstein to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela to Ivan Pavlov (and his dog). Each category is judged by independent academies, who ask how the nominees have best used their creativity and how the world benefits from their creative process, with prizes distributed annually to those who during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. What a fantastic idea. 

I was also surprised to find out about the monetary value of the Nobel Prize. In 1895 Nobel stipulated that his estate (worth £148M in today’s terms) be converted into a fund and invested in safe securities. The six annual prizes are worth in the region of £1m for each of the 6 categories, and have been paid out of the interest leaving the capital intact to this day.

So the man who invented dynamite is the same man that puts his name to the Nobel Peace Prize. There’s a juicy piece of irony.


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