Though most people have heard of the Nobel prizes, only a small fraction of these individuals are familiar with the intriguing life and achievements of the prizes' founder and namesake, Alfred Bernhard Nobel. Equally interesting are the contents of Nobel's will and the subsequent annual granting of prizes, funded by his lifetime savings. These prizes are viewed internationally as the most respectable signs of achievement in each of the six categories in which they are awarded. While Nobel was a man of many talents and achievements, his life was also saturated with much hardship and anxiety. This aspect of his life contributes strongly to the fascination and uniqueness associated with Nobel's existence.
Investigation into the early life of Alfred Nobel, along with his lifelong studies, scientific advancements, and social situation, can further development of an extensive sense of understanding and esteem of both the winners and founder of the Nobel Prize. Throughout his childhood in Stockholm, Sweden, Alfred Nobel was sickly, suffering from severe head and back aches, digestive problems, and a heart condition. Thus, young Alfred experienced very little formal schooling-some may even go so far as to proclaim him a primarily self-taught autodidact. However, there is evidence that his mother and some hired tutors contributed to his education. Due to his lack of actual schooling and extremely minimal exposure to other youths, Nobel never developed the social skills he would so desperately desire in later life.
He was instead a very negative being, constantly worrying, and depending on his sole companion: his mother. Illness and social incompetence were not the only vices of Nobel's early life. When Alfred was but four years of age, family bankruptcy forced his father, Immanuel, to flee to Russia in search of income. Meanwhile, Alfred's mother ran a grocery store in Sweden in order to modestly suppor the family, which included Alfred's two older brothers, Robert and Ludwig, along with a youngest son named Emil. Hope began to appear for the Nobel when Immanuel Nobel, a clever engineer and inventor, developed a submarine mine designed to protect the port of St. Petersburg and succeeded in selling it to the Russian Czar, Nicholas I. At the age of sixteen, Alfred Nobel left his family, then located in Russia, and headed West for the United States, studying under Ericsson for the greater portion of four years. Although he spent only a short period of time in Paris during his early years, he found it most amiable.
A truly brilliant man, Nobel was fluent in English, French, German, Russian, and Swedish by the age of seventeen. Labeled by Victor Hugo as "Europe's richest vagabond", much of Nobel's multilingual ability can probably be attributed to the vast amount of travelling he did throughout his life. Nobel's monetary wealth, however, came from a variety of sources, including family involvement in the Russian oil industry and personal income as a pioneer in the development of explosives. Having created his first explosion by placing a glass tube filled with nitroglycerine in a gun powder-filled tin can, Nobel began to realize nitroglycerine's potential as a useful explosive. In 1863, just one year after the first tin can explosion, Nobel was pleased to introduce liquid nitroglycerine as a suitable substance for rock blasting, since black powder was the only available explosive at the time, used primarily in battle.
However, as Nobel would discover yet another year later, upon a tragic explosion resulting in his younger brother's death, his work with nitroglycerine was only in its elementary stages and had many modifications yet to be made. In 1867, Nobel received a patent on his very significant discovery of a method to transform unstable liquid nitroglycerine into a more stable paste, which could be shaped into sticks later known as dynamite. This eliminated much of the worry and fear associated with work with explosives, such as unpredictable explosions, which were frequently resultant of liquid nitrogen. Among the other three hundred fifty five patents obtained by Nobel in his lifetime were those for synthetic rubber and leather, and artificial silk.
Upon his discovery of the key to stable explosives, Nobel felt he had reached his goal, which was " to invent a substance or a terrible machine with such terrible power of mass destruction that war would thereby be impossible forever" (source unknown). While he had expected heroism upon his brilliant discovery, Nobel received no such praise or encouraging recognition. He was instead scorned, seen only as the world's most horrible man, inventor of the most terrifying, destructive substance known to man at the time. While his childhood was indeed a basis for social insecurity, the world's vengeful, vindictive reaction to his proudest discovery intensified this feeling of inadequacy and instilled a sense of worthlessness which would plague him to his death.
Socially inferior, Nobel never married, but instead buried himself in his travels and studies. However, he did place an advertisement in a Parisian newspaper between 1876-77, stating: "Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household" (3, web). An Austrian woman, Bertha Kinsky, replied to the ad, but only stayed with Alfred for a very brief period of time before fleeing to and secretly married her true love, Count Arthur Gundaccer von Sutter. She soon thereafter became Bertha Sophia Felicity Countess von Clinic und Tet tau, a name reflecting her status as Countess. Another of Nobel's love interests was Sofie Hess, a Viennese mistress who spent a more extensive period of time with Nobel than did Bertha Kinsky. It is said that shortly after their meeting, she came to refer to herself as "Madame Nobel", though it seemed her main interest was in Alfred's monetary wealth, as opposed to him as an individual.
Twenty years younger than Alfred, Sofie was also notorious for "running around" with other men, one of whom impregnated and subsequently married her, only to abandon her within days. Considering these two women, it is remarkable the tremendous differences between the two women so involved in the life of Alfred Nobel. While Alfred ended the relationship with Sofie soon after her child's birth, such was not the case with Bertha. During her time with him, Bertha stood not only as Alfred's secretary and household secretary, but also as a very dear friend. In fact, her involvement in the International Peace and Arbitration Association and sincere concern with world peace led to her development of the idea for some sort of international peace prize. After many discussions between Alfred and Bertha, it was decided that Alfred would establish in his will a prize for peace, something which we today know as the "Nobel Peace Prize".
This prize also led to the establishment of the other five Nobel Prizes. The Nobel Prize is quite possibly the most internationally renowned and highly prestigious award available to any author, peace activist, physicist, chemist, medical doctor, or economist. However, its existence has actually been rather brief, having not yet even spanned an entire century. Nobel finalized his will in November, 1895-approximately one year before his death. Upon his death on December 10, 1896 in San Remo, Italy, it was reveled to the world that Nobel's will specifies wishes for the establishment of five prizes in the categories of Chemistry, Physics, Physiology / Medicine, Literature, and Peace. A sixth prize was added in 1969 for those exceptional in Economics.
The funding for these prizes was to come from Nobel's savings and valued at a total of $8.5 million. However, since so many individuals felt entitled to a portion of Nobel's vast sum of money, it was difficult for the will's executors, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, to establish the Nobel Prizes. Six years after Alfred Nobel's death, the prizes were finally established, and in 1901, the first honorees received Nobel Prizes, worth $30,000. When 1994's Literature Nobel Prize winner, Kenzaburo Oe, received the honor, it amounted to approximately $930,000, along with the standard Nobel Prize components: a diploma certifying exceptional achievement, and a gold medal.
Nobel stated in his will that ultimate guideline for the prizes' winners was that they should have "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" (Nobel's will). Literature winners must have created the "most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency" (Nobel's will). Though all of the prizes' funding is rooted in Nobel's initial sum of $8.5 million, each of the prizes' winners are chosen by different institutions. The Swedish Institute of Science awards the Physics prize, the Caroline Institute in Stockholm awards both the Chemistry and Physiology / Medicine prizes, and the Academy in Stockholm awards the Literature prize. Prize nominees are announced annually by February, and a winner is chosen from these nominees and announced the following November.
All Nobel prizes are awarded on the anniversary of Nobel's death, December 10, in Oslo, Norway. The Nobel Prize is awarded to those who excel in the area of literature in an idealistic manner to such a magnitude that worldwide recognition is warranted. This has been achieved on numerous occasions by American novelists, essayists, poets, and other writers. The first American Nobel Prize laureate in the literature category was Sinclair Lewis, who was given such an honor in 1930.
The American Midwest was Sinclair's primary setting for the creation of many unique characters, along with expression of exceptional wit and vivid description. William Faulkner, the only American Literature Nobel Prize winner of the 1940's, was known for his artistically unique novels, which helped to shape the Modern American novel as we know it. His 1949 attainment of the Nobel Literature prize ended an eleven-year "drought" of Literature prizes for America. The most recent American Literature Nobel Prize winner was also only one of two American females to ever achieve this enormous honor: Toni Morrison, who received the Nobel Literature Prize in 1993.
Her works deal with reality, and employ visionary force and poetic tendencies in reinforcement of her purpose (nobel prizes. com). The Nobel Prize is truly an international symbol of success and respectable achievement. However, in order to fully understand the Nobel Prize, an understanding of the man behind the prize is thoroughly beneficial. Upon studying the life of Alfred Nobel and his concept for the Nobel Prize, one will find avoidance of a heightened feeling of homage toward all Nobel laureates very difficult.