How the Inventor of Dynamite, Alfred Nobel, became “The Merchant of Death”
Updated: May 7, 2022
No one can ever fully predict the consequences of their actions. Still, some warning bells should be hard to ignore. Take Alfred Nobel, for instance, the founder of the Nobel Prize. For most of his life, he had a different reputation—as the inventor of dynamite, one of the most destructive technologies of the age. Though he maintained his motives were pure, Nobel had no shortage of signs telling him his creation might do at least as much harm as good. He persevered and lived to regret it, it's said.
Born in Sweden in 1833, Nobel became obsessed with explosives at a young age after meeting the inventor of nitro-glycerin. He spent some formative years trying to harness its power, even after a botched nitro-glycerin experiment at a factory killed his younger brother and five other workers. Nobel patented dynamite in 1867, a “new, transportable explosive,” notes the Sydney Morning Herald video above, that “was an instant hit in the mining and construction industries.” Originally called “Nobel’s Blasting Powder,” the chemist and engineer soon choose a new name, from the ancient Greek word for “power.”
It wouldn’t take long before dynamite became a conveniently devastating weapon of war, especially in the Spanish American War, which began two years after Alfred’s death. But ten years earlier, in 1888, when the bottle was already well uncorked, Alfred received a shock when a French newspaper misidentified him for his brother, Ludwig, who had just died. His erroneous pre-mortem obituary appeared with the headline “The Merchant of Death is Dead!” The unsparing bio went on to say that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”
This may have not been his intention, so he believed, but when he saw the image reflected back at him, he immediately sought to atone for his wayward invention. “Legend has it, Nobel was mortified… and spent the rest of his life trying to establish a positive legacy.” He sought to connect people around the world, pioneering an early version of Google Earth “with balloons and rockets instead of satellites.” And when he died in 1896, he left half of his wealth, “over half a billion dollars today, to establish the Nobel Prizes.”
It is a fascinating case, if we credit the mistaken obituary for turning Nobel’s life around. Adam Grant—whom Preet Bharara introduces on his podcast Stay Tuned as “an organisational psychologist and star professor at the Wharton School”—mentions Nobel as a “pretty radical example of people changing in pretty radical ways.” There are several problems with this interpretation. Nobel may have seen the light, but he did not radically change as a person. He was already an idealistic inventor, as a Vanderbilt University biography has it, a supporter of “the peace movement” and a “truly international figure.”
Called by Victor Hugo the “wealthiest vagabond in Europe,” Nobel wrote novels, poetry, drama, and letters in five languages. He had a broad humanist outlook but for some reason could or would not see the worst uses of his product, even as his company sold weapons—to Italy for example, an act for which his adopted nation of France deemed him a traitor in 1891.
Nobel’s first Swedish patent was for “ways to prepare gunpowder” and his father, also an inventor, managed the family factory before him and made arms for the Crimean War. Like many a gilded age industrialist, Nobel turned away from the suffering he caused, endowing the arts and sciences after death to ease his conscience in life, many think, but not to truly ameliorate the damage done.
Nobel’s companies have survived him, making rocket launchers and the like as well as undeniably useful mining and construction tools. His prizes, whatever his intentions, have also done the world much good, not least in creating a global platform for deserving luminaries. (Those who have rejected Nobels have vigorously argued otherwise.) Nobel was a sensitive and complicated individual whose life was filled with grief and loss and who left a lasting legacy as a patron of intellectual culture. He was also a manufacturer of deadly weapons of mass destruction. Both of these things were true.
But even if he did not radically change—either his character or his business model—he did shift his perspective enough to have a tremendous impact on his legacy, which is the lesson Grant draws from his story. “Too often,” he tells Bharara, “we’re looking at our lives through a microscope,” oblivious to the larger scale. “What we actually need is a wide-angle lens where we can zoom out and ask, what is my legacy? What is the impact of this behaviour on my reputation?” Sometimes, says Grant, “people do not like the person that's staring them in the mirror, and they decide they want to change.”