Bad people do good things: thinking about Alfred Nobel

NobelThe world’s most famous prizes for intellectual achievement are named for the man who invented dynamite.

How could that be?

Legend has it that the man who invented dynamite, Alfred Nobel, read his own obituary.

“The merchant of death is dead”

Imagine reading that about yourself.

I mean, hurt feelings.

It was his brother, Ludvig, who died, and some editor was surely fired or reprimanded for the paper’s mistake. But the obituary made its mark on Alfred, or so the story goes. It spurred a period of self-reflection that led to his creation of the Nobel Prizes, designed to reward the “good.” He announced the prizes, hilariously, through his will after his death.

By modern internet accounts, which is to say not much research, Alfred comes across as an artist at heart (witty, lonely, prone to depression) and a businessman otherwise. He was an enormous success otherwise, building a dynamite-based empire of factories and corporations throughout Europe.

His first factory, in Sweden, produced nitroglycerin. Nitroglycerin was the most powerful explosive of its day. It was also wildly unpredictable. An explosion at Nobel’s factory killed Alfred’s younger brother, Emil, in 1864.

You’d think a guy would stop messing around with explosives after that. Instead, Alfred expanded his network of nitroglycerin factories and made a series of innovations that made the chemical a bit easier to control. Three years after his brother’s death, he invented dynamite by combining nitroglycerin with a porous type of rock known as Kieselguhr. Dynamite was immediately patented and Alfred Nobel, like it or not, was an instant celebrity.

It’s easy (for me) to think of dynamite as a weapon designed to kill or maim other human beings. In fairness to it, dynamite was a key ingredient in the creation of tunnels, canals, highways, and railroad tracks all around the world. The explosive powder made the world much smaller.

It begs a moral question, doesn’t it. Is an inventor responsible for what his invention is used for?

Alfred Nobel was a complex guy who fiddled with explosives by day and drafted plays and stories by night. He never married. He gave away his fortune, but only after his death. A biography of his was subtitled “The Loneliest Millionaire.”

And nearly 12 decades later, the man who invented dynamite is tied to peace, intelligence, and selfless achievement for the good of mankind.

Alfred Nobel!

In my lazy lifelong quest to understand man’s infinite shades of gray, he’s exhibit A.

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