Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Noble Prize: Innovation from tragedy

For more than 100 years, the Nobel Prizes have recognized the finest in human achievements.

In 1864, Alfred's younger brother Emil and several other people were killed in an explosion at one of their factories in Sweden. The disaster encouraged Alfred to try to find a way to make nitroglycerin safe. Finally, in 1867, Alfred Nobel found that by mixing nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth, the resulting compound was a stable paste that could be shaped into short sticks that mining companies might use to blast through rock. Nobel patented this invention as "dynamite".

The invention of dynamite revolutionized the mining, construction and demolition industries. Railroad companies could now safety blast through mountains, opening up vast stretches of the Earth's surface to exploration and commerce. As a result, Nobel — who eventually garnered 355 patents on his many inventions — grew fantastically wealthy. Dynamite, of course, had other uses in warfare. 

Nonetheless, he found out what others thought of his invention when, in 1888, his brother Ludvig died. Though some journalistic error, Alfred's obituary was widely printed instead, and he was scorned for being the man who made millions through the deaths of others. Once French newspaper wrote "the merchant of death is dead". The obituary went on to describe Nobel as a man "who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before."

Nobel was stunned by what he read, and as a result became determined to do something to improve his legacy. In 1895, one year before he died in 1896, Nobel signed his last will and testament, which set aside the majority of his vast estate to establish the five Nobel Prizes, in Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine which were first awarded in 1901.

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