I still remember the first time I read about Alfred Nobel, I was just a little girl then, but I was completely enamored with his story. And I learned some very life-changing lessons from it. There is something about history, but the truth is that at the end of the day we choose how we want to be remembered.
A man who clearly would have gone down the sewers of history as the most baneful human the world has ever known but is remembered today as the greatest philanthropist the world has ever known.
Born on October 21, 1833, Nobel developed an interest in explosives at a relatively young age and began learning the ropes from his father who already had a fair knowledge about it.
After a brief stint of schooling, he began to experiment with the manufacturing of explosives. He quickly developed an interest in a substance called nitroglycerin, as he reckoned that it was several times stronger than gunpowder, and began to find ways of turning it into an explosive for commercial use, even though nitroglycerin was strongly kicked against by those who knew about it, because of its unpredictability.
Nobel spent a good number of years studying explosives, and how to harness the power of nitroglycerin. He went on to invent the detonator. And two years after that, which was 1865, he invented the blasting cap.
But a year before the blasting cap was invented, something horrible happened in Nobel’s factory which he had built for the manufacturing of nitroglycerin. There was an explosion in the factory, and five people died. And among those that died was Nobel’s brother.
One would have thought that the death of his brother would be his leash, but the explosion at the factory came with a greater drive. Nobel reckoned that he was on the cusp of history that would change the world forever.
Because of how unstable and unpredictable the nitroglycerin was, Nobel continued to seek ways to manufacture explosives that would be safer to handle. And in 1867, he invented the dynamite, an explosive easier to handle than nitroglycerin. Dynamite was soon patented in the US and the UK.
He didn’t stop there, a few years after that, he invented gelignite, a substance more powerful than dynamite. And after that ballistite was patented.
The press called him “An Angel of Death”, because of his leading role in manufacturing weapons that were used by men to kill themselves. But ironically, that was how Nobel made his wealth.
In 1891, Nobel made a statement that left the entire world puzzled. He said that the day two army corps will be able to destroy each other in a second, then all civilized nations will certainly recoil with horror and disband their troops.
He believed that when two nations would be able to fight and kill each other (with the use of such weapons he was manufacturing), then they would be overrun with fear, and won’t feel the need to fight one another again.
But was he right in his assertions? Of course, not. Because his weapons did not stop nations from fighting each other, and nations did not disband their troops as he had thought it would happen.
But in 1888, something happened that made him seek to rewrite his history. His brother lost his life while visiting Cannes, and a French newspaper thought it was Nobel. The newspaper then published his obituary and condemned the things he did while alive. The paper wrote – The merchant of death is dead. And went on to say that the man who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before had died.
When Nobel saw the publication, his conscience was pricked. And he wondered if that was how he would be remembered when he was gone. It is believed that he was filled with so much regret, that he had to think of ways to make amends for the many ills he had caused humanity.
As he didn’t have a wife or a child, before his death, he willed a large chunk of his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes, the most prestigious prizes to be awarded to persons who have distinguished themselves in areas of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace.
If you look at the criteria for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, you would understand the regret that triggered the change in Nobel’s ideology. To win the Nobel Peace Prize, the person must achieve the best work of promoting friendship between nations, reducing standing armies, and promoting peace congresses.
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That sounds a bit ironic coming from someone who spent the most part of his years manufacturing weapons with which nations would use to fight and kill each other. But then decided to give the highest price in the world to people who have made the greatest contributions to making the world a better place.
The Nobel Prizes remain the most prestigious awards in the world today. And today, the world does not remember Alfred Nobel as an angel of death, but he is now remembered as perhaps the greatest philanthropist the world has ever known.
There is something very intriguing about Alfred Nobel’s story. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what we have done in the past, but if we decide to change those perceptions that people have of us then we can do it. It is in our hands to decide how we want to be remembered.
Alfred Nobel did not want to be remembered as an angel of death, even though he was one while alive. And today history remembers him the way he chose to be remembered.
I hope you have learned from the story of this man Alfred Nobel, and I hope his story inspires you too to leave behind a better legacy for yourself because at the end of the day you are the one who will decide how you want to be remembered.